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New oral history project tells story of African-American schools in Goochland County

March 25, 2016

A new oral history project led by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and John Tyler Community College explores the experiences of former students of Goochland County’s Rosenwald Schools, which were among the nearly 5,000 built throughout the South in the early 20th century to educate African-American children.

The Goochland County Rosenwald Schools Oral History Project features 19 video interviews with 18 participants, fully searchable transcripts and tape logs, photographs of the schools and various related documents.

They were a catalyst, along with local activism and pressure, for improving educational opportunities available for African-Americans in the South in the early 20th century.

The project is a joint venture by Brian Daugherity, Ph.D., assistant professor in VCU’s Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Alyce Miller, Ph.D., associate professor of history and chair of Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at JTCC, in partnership with VCU Libraries, which is hosting the digital collection.

“It's important to understand the Rosenwald Schools because they were a catalyst, along with local activism and pressure, for improving educational opportunities available for African-Americans in the South in the early 20th century,” Daugherity said. “Southern school funding disproportionately benefited the education of white schoolchildren, so black activism and support for Rosenwald Schools was an important corrective to the injustices and inequities of that time.”

Rosenwald Schools were a philanthropic effort funded in part by businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who was appalled at disparities in educational resources between white and black residents in the South.

In 1912, Booker T. Washington asked Rosenwald to use some of the money he had donated to the Tuskegee Institute to construct several small schools in rural Alabama. After that project proved a success, Rosenwald formed the Rosenwald Fund, which ultimately financed construction of 4,977 schools, primarily for African-Americans, between 1917 and 1932.

In Virginia, 367 Rosenwald Schools were built, including 10 in Goochland County.

The Rosenwald Fund required local communities to contribute public funds from both the white and black communities to show partnership across racial lines. However, the majority of public funds came from the African-American communities, which held fundraisers and contributed wages in support of a better education for African-American children.

“One of the reasons that this history is so important is that it highlights the importance and strength of local activism in rural African-American communities in the South in securing educational opportunities,” Miller said. “Stories like the ones in this collection help to highlight the power and agency of rural African-American communities in the South throughout the Jim Crow era.”

The project originated when Daugherity and Miller met a group of Goochland County residents who are converting one of the county’s remaining Rosenwald Schools into a museum. The group asked them to help uncover stories related to African-American education in the county in the early 20th century and to collect video footage that could be used in the museum.

The researchers received grant funding to conduct the oral history interviews and related research from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the Virginia Community College System and the John Tyler Community College Foundation.

They worked with Cris Silvent, associate professor in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at John Tyler Community College, who videotaped the interviews with the former Rosenwald School students.

As part of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant, the researchers partnered with VCU Libraries to preserve and organize the materials to build a digital, online collection of the materials.

“When Brian Daugherity came to me early on to talk about this project, I recognized the historic value of the untold stories he was documenting and the ways they could strengthen our research holdings on the evolving landscape of education for African-Americans in Virginia and across the South,” said Wesley J. Chenault, Ph.D., head of Special Collections and Archives at James Branch Cabell Library

VCU Libraries actively acquires and preserves research collections of enduring value. “We encourage faculty and researchers to contact us for personalized guidance on projects,” Chenault said. “Archivists are experts in identifying materials of historical significance, regardless of format. Our team regularly meets with faculty and community members to talk about the selection, the accessibility and the preservation of these unique materials.”

Sam Byrd, digital collections systems librarian with VCU Libraries, adds that the digital collection will ensure that a wide audience has the opportunity to learn more about Rosenwald Schools and African-American education in the early 20th century.

“It’s part of our community engagement mission to work with professors and others in the community to make this material available on a wider basis,” Byrd said. “We have a responsibility to make this material available and to continue to make it available long into the future. We have a commitment to preserving, storing and managing materials that are part of our permanent collection.”

This article by Brian McNeill was published by University News. That article also contains excerpts from the oral histories.


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