Cape Charles’ Rosenwald School Shores Up Support for Renovation

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Cape Charles Elementary School alumni and friends gather on the lawn for Umoja Day, a day of unity, Oct. 2. Image from Cape Charles Rosenwald School Restoration Initiative Oct. 23 online event.

By Stefanie Jackson – The Cape Charles Rosenwald School Restoration Initiative (CCRSRI), a nonprofit, held an online event Oct. 23 to kick off its capital campaign to raise $2.5 million to renovate the historic Black elementary school on Old Cape Charles Road, transforming it into a community center.

“This place that was used for segregation will be a place that people of all races, all ages, all sizes can come and communicate,” said Tevya Griffin, president of CCRSRI.

The event was sponsored by the Woodson Center, based in Washington, D.C., and founded by Robert “Bob” Woodson Sr., in 1981 to provide funding and training to community-based organizations and leaders.

The Woodson Center pledged $250,000 to the capital campaign, made possible by a donation from the John and Daria Barry Foundation, Woodson announced during the event.

The Cape Charles Rosenwald School, historically known as the Cape Charles Colored School, or Cape Charles Elementary School to students and their families, was built in 1928.

Julius Rosenwald, who was president of Sears Roebuck, partnered with educator and former slave Booker T. Washington during the Jim Crow era to build more than 5,300 schools for Black students to help address the problem of rural illiteracy.

Stephanie Deutsch, author of “You Need a Schoolhouse,” whose husband, David Deutsch, is Rosenwald’s great-grandson, said Rosenwald and Washington were able to build the schools because of a “third partner,” the rural southern communities where the schools were built.

“People were determined to give their children something that they themselves had not had the opportunity to get,” Deutsch said, pointing out that the Black families living in those communities were only one or two generations removed from slavery, when education was “absolutely forbidden.”

Rosenwald created the financial concept known today as the matching grant – the community would raise money to build a school, and he would match a portion of the funds. During the period in which the Rosenwald schools were built, Black communities raised about $6 million of the total construction costs, and Rosenwald’s total match was more than $4 million.

Growing up, David Deutsch knew little about his great-grandfather, Julius Rosenwald, who was Jewish. Deutsch was raised during a “time of assimilation” and his father rarely if ever mentioned Rosenwald – although not for a lack of pride in Rosenwald’s accomplishments, Deutsch believed.

He learned about Rosenwald later through other family members and his wife’s book, “You Need a Schoolhouse.” He has since visited many historic Rosenwald schools, including the one in Cape Charles.

Deutsch supports creating a Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald schools National Historic Site, as there has never been a National Parks site dedicated to a person of Jewish faith.

Furthermore, “This is a time in America where we’re trying to tell the full story of American history, and this slice of time may not be known to all Americans … the story of philanthropy, the story of Blacks and Whites working together, the story of communities working together, and the drive, that fantastic drive, for education,” he said.

“Only in America could a man be born a slave and be responsible for the creation of 5,000 schools in partnership with a rich, White northerner. Only in America could you find this kind of dynamic,” said Woodson.

The numbers appear to tell the story of the success and lasting impact of the Rosenwald schools.

At the end of slavery, only 20% of Blacks could read or write, but within 40 years, that number rose to about 70%, Woodson said.

Before segregation ended, about one-third of all African American children in the South had attended Rosenwald schools, Stephanie Deutsch said.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago released a study in 2009 that showed that, compared to  counties without Rosenwald schools, counties with Rosenwald schools had higher rates of high school graduation and college attendance, higher standardized test scores, higher lifetime income, and lower incarceration rates, she said.

Gloria Jackson, the great-granddaughter of Booker T. Washington, noted that the educational principles that influenced the Rosenwald schools had carried over from the Tuskegee Institute, which Washington opened with 30 students on July 4, 1881, in a one-room church building.

“Though we were freed physically from slavery, we were still bound in our minds, were bound to attitudes … bitterness and anger and hatred and unforgiveness,” Jackson said, referring to the Black community.

“And some of us had a disdain for hard work, understandably, justifiably so … given the years of oppression through some of the most brutal, demeaning conditions imaginable,” she said.

But Washington understood those attitudes would be “crippling” to the success of the Black community, so he taught his students, “I’ll never let a man make me stoop so low as to hate him, and I’ll never let my grievances overshadow my opportunities.”

Jackson has observed in the present day somewhat of a “regression to so much division, especially racial division, which is sad, because so many people did so much so that we would be (judged), as Martin Luther King said, not by the color of skin but by the content of our character – and that’s across all races, not just … the Black race. I think we’d do well today to … revisit some of those words,” she said.

Woodson agreed and said his vision is that the legacy of the Cape Charles Rosenwald School will be preserved and its future students will learn to respond to oppression with “self determination,” not “victimization.”

Former students of Cape Charles Elementary School appeared in a pre-recorded video to share their memories of the school and look forward to its future.

“I am so happy that the Rosenwald Initiative has taken over this building and one day it will become a learning center again, for all the people. Today is the highlight of my life, because I have not been in this school for 60 years,” said Valentine Evans.

Thomas Godwin remembered special events held at the school, such as Christmas cantatas, musicals, and poetry recitals, and he hoped some of those programs will be brought back.

The annual May Day celebration was another popular event that Griffin hopes will make a comeback at the restored Cape Charles school.

Dianne Davis said, “We did have an excellent opportunity being here, even though we had the old books (used textbooks) … we were still able to get the education because English has not changed, math has not changed.

“Even though we were two classes in one, the teachers were still able to educate us. … While one group worked, the teacher taught the others.”

“We were well-disciplined kids, and our parents were really concerned about our education, and I guess that’s one of the reasons why we wouldn’t play around in school,” Davis said.

After they finished their work for the day, the students went outside to the playground, where they could play basketball or softball, she recalled.

“I am just so excited that something’s finally going to be done with this school that will benefit everybody,” Davis said.

Cape Charles Elementary School closed in 1966 and later was converted to a seafood processing plant that closed in 1977. Even though the building was neglected for 42 years until CCRSRI purchased it in 2019, much of the building’s historic integrity has been retained.

The rehabilitated Cape Charles Rosenwald School will feature a classroom for Eastern Shore Community College with a two-way video system, workforce training, business incubator space, commercial kitchen, and a meeting and special event space. It also will have a space for a history exhibit and artifact storage.

Stephanie Deutsch envisioned the restored building as both a “memorial of the past” and an “investment in the future.”

For more information or to donate to the Cape Charles Rosenwald School Initiative, visit www.ccrosenwaldschool.org

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