FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – From Maya Angelou to John Lewis, many important figures in Black history began their education in Rosenwald Schools like those that once stood on what is now Fort Campbell.
More than 5,000 of those schools were built across the South to address educational gaps stemming from segregation in the early 20th century. They were named for Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears and Roebuck Co., who partnered with Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington to fund them.
“Really, these schools gave the Black community a fighting chance,” said Nicole Sorenson-Mutchie, archaeologist, Cultural Resources Program, Directorate of Public Works. “Coming out of the Civil War era and entering the Jim Crow era, the cards were stacked against them, so this created paths and helped them find success.”
There were likely four Rosenwald Schools built in the Fort Campbell area between 1917 and 1932 based on federal documents, Sorenson-Mutchie said. They were demolished alongside most pre-World War II buildings during the post’s construction, but the staff of the Cultural Resources program continues working to preserve the remnants.
Artifacts collected so far came from the Ransom School built in 1925, Sorenson-Mutchie said. Cultural Resources staff originally found traces of the building during an archaeological survey in 2000 and plans to create an exhibit once enough pieces have been restored.
“At first they actually thought it was one of the old farmsteads that would have been in the area,” she said. “It wasn’t until further research was done and archaeological crews did a deeper investigation of that area that they learned more about the history of that spot.”
The Ransom School was built on land now used as Training Area Six, had 107 students enrolled during its first year, Sorenson-Mutchie said. Children ages 6-14 attended school there.
“If you were to go out to the site today, you wouldn’t see very many things on the surface to give you a clue that this was once a busy schoolyard,” she said. “The woods have taken over again, but below the ground it tells a different story.”
Marbles, writing materials and broken desk pieces may not seem significant at first glance, but together they paint a picture greater than the sum of their parts.
“These buildings were so important to the community because oftentimes they weren’t just a school building,” Sorenson-Mutchie said. “Since the school year was only four months long at the time, it also served as a community gathering place and was sometimes used for church.”
Black communities also highly valued Rosenwald Schools because community members played a direct role in building them, Sorenson-Mutchie said.
“Communities had to come up with about half the funds ahead of time before they could apply for a Rosenwald Fund grant,” she said. “They also had to come up with some land to put the school on, and manpower to build it once the supplies came in.”
Local school districts also had to agree to maintain the Rosenwald Schools, adding another level of investment. That set them apart from traditionally underfunded Black schools in the early 20th century.
“Black children were hugely underserved when it came to supplies and buildings that were dilapidated,” Sorenson-Mutchie said. “For example, in the year 1912 in Macon County, Alabama, which is where the Tuskegee Institute is located, a white child would receive $14 from the state for education, and Black children only received 20 cents.”
Rural communities were more heavily impacted by educational disparities, so Rosenwald and Washington focused their fund on those areas. The Ransom School would have served Montgomery County’s Woodlawn community, Sorenson-Mutchie said.
Other Rosenwald School sites on post have yet to be discovered, but one could turn up next time the installation starts a project. Cultural Resources’ archaeologists survey the land before each build in search of historical items for restoration.
“I think it’s important because it gives people a connection to the past,” Sorenson-Mutchie said. “Soldiers have a transient lifestyle where they’re here for a short time and then move on, but maybe they can find a way to connect to something that was here before.”