Behind the Lens: The Rosenwald Schools

Photos and musings from our photographer David Kidd.
by | December 27, 2017
(David Kidd)

For decades, a jumble of overgrown weeds and vines kept a piece of history hidden in the tiny town of Gifford, S.C.

No one gave it a thought until three years ago when the pastor of a neighboring church caught a glimpse of the dilapidated structure that was buried within. With the help of the town, he helped unearth what turned out to be an important piece of his community's past: a Rosenwald school.

Early in the 20th century, Booker T. Washington teamed up with philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to provide schools for the neediest children in communities across the South. Between 1912 and 1932, Rosenwald financed nearly 5,000 schools serving poor, rural African-Americans across 15 Southern states. It is estimated that only about 10 percent of the structures survive today.

Gifford’s Rosenwald school was built in 1921 and closed in 1958 as the town moved toward integrated education. The next-door church made use of it for a while longer until it was abandoned and forgotten. Over time, the building was enveloped in vegetation and was no longer visible, even though it sits close along the town’s main road.

Coinciding with a renewed national interest in Rosenwald schools, the schoolhouse in Gifford is once again an object of local pride. A fund has been established for its restoration and eventual conversion to a community center. The town has applied for grant money to add to the $6,000 that's been collected so far.

It will probably be a few years before the building is stabilized and ready for its next life. Less than half a mile away, another old wooden building, the former “white” school, sits alone, slowly disintegrating.

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David Kidd | Design Director | dkidd@governing.com