Philanthropy and Democracy / Philanthropy and Education / Philanthropy and Historical Research / Philanthropy and Inequality

The Unevenness of Archives

Editors’ Note: With a lens on the funding of black education in early twentieth-century United States, Melissa Wooten discusses how wealth inequality among charitable givers and racialized tendencies in public memory lead to inequities in the archives, and thus too, to writing histories privileging the philanthropic acts of the wealthy over the less wealthy and of whites over blacks. 

For the past year, I have traveled to the University of Chicago and Fisk University to research Julius Rosenwald’s philanthropic efforts to build schools in the Black, rural South. The University of Chicago Special Collections Research Center holds Julius Rosenwald’s personal papers, while Fisk University Special Collections and Archives maintains the records of Rosenwald’s private philanthropy, the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which the philanthropist founded in 1917. Combined, both repositories provide a window into Rosenwald’s motivations and plans to construct rural schools throughout the racially segregated South.

A Chicago resident, Rosenwald commenced his philanthropic career close to home. His connection to the University of Chicago began in 1904 with a donation of $6000 to purchase German language books for what would become the Hirsch-Bernays library. In 1912, the man who had long headed the mail-order giant Sears, Roebuck, pledged $25,000 to build schools for Black residents of rural Alabama. Rosenwald would eventually establish a southern office in Nashville, Tennessee to oversee the ever-expanding school building program in 1920. Years later, Charles S. Johnson, President of Fisk University, also located in Nashville, served as a trustee to the Julius Rosenwald Fund. It is no surprise then, that two universities located in the heart of cities where so much of Rosenwald’s philanthropy emanated now maintain the documents that allow for scholarly exploration of his activities.

Having spent a number of weeks at both facilities, I so appreciate the care taken to preserve the records related to the school building program and the access these institutions provide. Yet, traveling to both of these spaces highlights the general unevenness of the archiving of material related to Black life and culture. Even in the realm of Black education, for example, information pertaining to the work of wealthy White men such as Julius Rosenwald is far easier to come by than the work done by less wealthy or Black people.

At some level, this is the result of wealthy people maintaining and storing larger quantities of written documents during their own lifetimes and then archivists willing to preserve the papers of such “important” individuals. It is also a reflection of another dynamic that scholars long have discussed: Whites working on behalf of Blacks garner much more public attention and praise than Blacks working on behalf of Blacks. Further suggesting this racialized tendency in public memory, it is important to note that Rosenwald’s educational philanthropy covers only a relatively short period of time. After all, by 1948, the Julius Rosenwald Fund had spent its interest and endowment. And yet, in a society privileging the deeds of the wealthy over the less wealthy and of Whites over Blacks, Rosenwald’s life and work has been preserved across two archives. Comparatively, records documenting an organization like the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church’s educational philanthropy, which dates to the 1800s, are dispersed across many groups and institutions. To this point, they seem less complete and much more difficult to attain than Julius Rosenwald’s personal and foundation papers. This makes it harder to appreciate the AME Church as a major philanthropy on par with an organization like the Julius Rosenwald Fund.

As far as the AME Church, Princeton Theological Seminary maintains a digital archive of some of its documents related to Payne Theological Seminary, a church sponsored school in Ohio. For many years, The Journal of Negro Education issued a report on enrollment trends at Black colleges. This in combination with volumes such as Dwight O.W. Holmes’ Evolution of the Negro Colleges or Thomas Jesse Jones’ Negro Education: A Study of the Private and Higher Schools for Colored People in the United States provide details on AME supported schools. Still, these reports offer less insight into the AME Church as an entity engaged in philanthropy than they do into the individual schools benefiting from church support.

The difficulty of identifying records related to the AME Church or other similar organizations inevitably impacts the stories that scholars tell about these philanthropic organizations and the individuals who support them. In a similar vein, it also influences the ways that we understand the scale and scope of philanthropy emanating from within the Black community. Of course, we as scholars all make choices of what to study based primarily on interest. But as I have realized myself in the process of visiting Rosenwald’s archives and hunting down information on the AME Church, there are also quite practical considerations. To the extent that it’s easier to find historical information about the educational philanthropy of White people, this has consequences for what continues to get presented to the public as knowledge.

To this point, Americans know so much about the educational philanthropy of men such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Julius Rosenwald because—reflecting the class- and racialized dynamics of public memory—a small number of organizations preserve and coordinate documents detailing their exploits. In each instance, these records are located at educational facilities who see it as their mission to promote scholarly interest and engagement. Not completely unrelated to such efforts, scholarship on Julius Rosenwald is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Since 2011, multiple histories of Rosenwald, the school building program, and officers of the Julius Rosenwald Fund have been published. This is in addition to popular press profiles in architecture magazines and a documentary chronicling Rosenwald’s work. Carefully curated and easily accessible archives facilitate this renewed interest.

And yet, contrary to what the unequal preservation of Rosenwald’s and the AME Church’s papers might suggest, the Church’s philanthropic vision encompassed all levels of education and persisted years after the Julius Rosenwald Fund folded up shop. The Church’s work on behalf of Black education, that is, was more expansive and enduring than Rosenwald’s own.  Moreover, we come to understand men like Rosenwald as singular in their quest to build schools for Black communities when in fact fulfilling his vision required financial commitments from numerous others.

Like several other contemporary philanthropists, Rosenwald used a system of matching grants to fund his rural school building program from the start. The leading philanthropists felt it important that any project they funded have broad based support. So, while Rosenwald gave a substantial portion of money to build schools, he did not give all the money necessary to do so. Others, mainly Black community members, contributed the majority of the money required to build a school.

The first Rosenwald schoolhouse was a single frame building, located near Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Black community members raised $150 and contributed the equivalent of $132.50 in labor to this building. These totals do not count the time and effort that Black community members took to find a location and convince local authorities, hostile to Black educational efforts more generally, to allow for construction in the first place. Rosenwald contributed $300. Ten years into the Rural School Building Program, 1,633 schools were constructed across the rural south. Black community members contributed 26.3 percent of the cost. Julius Rosenwald contributed 19.3 percent.

Historical tributes often give the impression that the rural school building program was an effort made possible solely through the generosity of one man. That’s just not true. This program depended upon the collective nature of Black community members, particularly its ability to funnel money through the institutions that supported it like the Church. Even Rosenwald schools relied upon Black churches. Pastors were enlisted as motivational speakers to “preach the doctrine of good school houses” in hopes that this would spur the community to donate.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church had set itself the task of education prior to the U.S. Civil War. The Church pursued this goal by raising money to help young men pay to attend any school that would admit Black students and building its own schools. The Church, though, was perhaps best-known for the colleges it supported, such as Morris Brown College or Wilberforce University, colleges that offered primary education to students through the early decades of the 20th century.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church did not stand alone in its efforts to fund educational opportunities for Black students. Data from the 1916 survey Negro Education showed that 17,299 students attended the 153 schools operated by Black church denominations. When focusing strictly on colleges, the financial commitment of Black denominations becomes even clearer. Data from the 1929 report Survey of Negro Colleges and Universities showed that the average annual income of sixteen colleges owned by Black church denominations was $66,977 as compared $61,075 for the thirty-one Black colleges under Northern white Church control.

On the one hand, it is clear, we are living in a renaissance moment of preservation related to the Black American experience. The National Museum of African American History and Culture stands as a testament to the breadth of material objects offering witness to Black life and the possibility that such materials can be recovered. On the other hand, stories such as the AME church show just how much further we have to go in piecing together the tales of Black ingenuity and effort to sustain community. It takes introspection on who is being celebrated in public memory, and ultimately, in the archives.

Melissa Wooten is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her research lies at the intersections of organizations, education, and race. She is the author of In the Face of Inequality: How Black Colleges Adapt (SUNY Press, 2015). She is currently working on a project that traces how 20th and 21st century philanthropists get involved in causes related to Black education. Follow her on Twitter @Prof_Wooten.


Deutsch, Stephanie. 2011. You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Holmes, Dwight O. W. 1934. The Evolution of the Negro College. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.


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