The creation of the Historic Russell School was fundamentally the work of the community, Littlefield said. Rosenwald schools received funding in three parts: seed money from Rosenwald himself, contributions from the predominantly-white county school boards and from the community.
“You could give labor and finances so it was usually a combination of those things for the African American community, but they raised a tremendous amount of money to make sure that those schools got built,” Littlefield said.
Fisk University found that the Historic Russell School received $700 from Rosenwald’s fund, accounting for nearly a fifth of the total cost of $3,695. The remainder of the funding was left to the community and the public to secure.
The tangible signs of education inequities are visible in the Historic Russell School. Phyllis Mack Horton, chairperson of the school's board of directors, said when students come for tours, they often notice holes in the chalkboards — these chalkboards were already used and given to them by the white school board.
For Horton, the Historic Russell School has been intertwined with her childhood. Her mother worked with the UNC School of Law to apply for nonprofit status for the school, and the school itself has been maintained in its pristine condition by her family’s church.
The Rosenwald schools had a much larger impact than classroom instruction for Black students, Horton said. Because Black teachers were unable to teach in white schools, she said, they had the “cream of the crop” in the region — Black teachers with master’s degrees — who were essentially the only source of formalized education for Black students during the Jim Crow era.
The teachers were embedded in the community, Horton said, and often stayed within the community and with local families. They were able to quickly identify if a student was struggling and wasn’t able to come to school, she said, because they knew the families and they knew the children.
“It was a family village during this educational period for these children, and so they were very instrumental in coming to these schools to teach the children,” she said.
Horton said the Historic Russell School can show future generations both the history and the value of an education, from free public education to support from the state in pursuing college-level courses while they’re still in high school. Education is a privilege and an honor for students to have access to today, she said.
Littlefield emphasized the role of the community in creating and preserving the Historic Russell Schools — Black families and communities navigated the process of fundraising and petitioning white school boards for funding and resources to eventually receive Rosenwald’s funding.
“I think it teaches you that a community can come together at this particular time during a Jim Crow system, when we had, you know, tremendous oppression,” Littlefield said. “And people can bring their pennies and they can have fundraisers, and they can donate land, all for the good of the future generation.”
In honor of Black History Month, the Historic Russell School will be hosting an open house Feb. 29 from 3 to 5 p.m.
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