Picture courtesy of the LOC and photogrammar.yale.edu: 1940 photo taken by Marion Post Wolcott, FSA photographer, in Caswell County, NC
Recently, I was looking through the thousands of Farm Security Administration images available from the Library of Congress and Yale’s photogrammar.yale.edu website. Although my focus was on selecting images of sharecroppers at work for my current documentary, I came across this wonderful image. It shows an important intersection of community building and historic African American schools.
The farmers are meeting in a schoolhouse for, Ms. Wolcott’s caption tells us, “a neighborhood land use planning committee.” By the time of this meeting in1940, soil conservation programs had been underway for almost a decade. The goal of these programs was to combat erosion through improved management practices. Financial incentive was also provided for planting trees on depleted cropland. These payments were supposed to benefit everyone who was impacted, but in reality few landowners shared the money and many tenant farmers were pushed off of the land. It is impossible to say with certainty whether the farmers in this picture are landowners or tenant farmers, but their well dressed appearance and the fact that they are attending a land planning meeting argues for them being owners.
Taking note of their surroundings, one can see the windows are large and have three panes across. This fact, along with the attractive beadboard and the patent desks, leads me to conclude that they were probably meeting in one of Caswell County’s six Rosenwald schools. The space is conducive to learning and discussion, and the farmers are listening attentively. Note also the poised leader of the meeting, and the young lady taking notes.
This was not an accidental meeting, but rather the confluence of sacrifice for education and powerful intentions on the part of both the community and the Rosenwald Fund. Between 1924 and 1931, Caswell County, NC communities organized to match grants and built six Rosenwald schools. The schools were designed not just to improve education in the rural South, but also to provide African American communities with their first public meetings spaces outside of churches. In this photo of such a meeting, we get a rare glimpse of one of the myriad ways Rosenwald schools benefited communities in addition to providing space for teaching.
In planning for better land use, these African American farmers were also planning for the future of their community. Better crops meant a higher standard of living, and would also have made it possible for them to continue to make donations to their children’s schools. Well into the 1950s, African American families paid their taxes and then also had to raise money for education basics such as books and buses.
For example, one story that I heard from several people locally was also documented by Dr. Melton A. McLaurin in his book The Black Marines of Montford Point (2009, UNC Press). Apparently, the African American families who lived on the eastern side of Pender County were told they must raise money for a bus if they wanted their children to have transportation to one of the two African American high schools in the county. After the families raised money and obtained a new bus, someone at the county bus garage tried to switch it with an old bus and give the new one to white students. In the end the African American families prevailed, but only after a struggle.
Farming and sharecropping were the economic backdrop against which most Rosenwald schools were constructed. We can develop a better understanding of Rosenwald school history by pausing to contemplate the larger agenda the Rosenwald Fund had for these school buildings, that they would uplift the whole community. In this image we can also see a combination of hope and gravity on the part of farmers, most of whom probably attended one the six Rosenwald schools in Caswell County, as they meet and make a cooperative plan.