Sears, Roebuck and Company magnate Julius Rosenwald created the Julius Rosenwald Fund (JRF) in 1917 to coordinate his contributions for African American education. Guided by Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald supported the expansion of public education for rural southern blacks within the context of segregation and vocational training. Not wishing to duplicate the efforts of other philanthropies such as the Slater Fund or General Education Board, Rosenwald agreed with Washington on a program administered through Tuskegee Institute from 1913 to 1920 for the construction of new school facilities for black children in the South. State agent for black rural schools Samuel L. Smith obtained the first Rosenwald aid for Tennessee school buildings in 1914.
In 1920 JRF officials in Chicago set up a southern office in Nashville with Samuel Smith as director of the rural school building program. Smith, who had studied rural school architecture with Fletcher B. Dresslar at George Peabody College for Teachers, designed most of the “Community School Plans” required for Rosenwald aid. Smith was instrumental in securing Rosenwald Fund support for the Interstate School Building Service at George Peabody College in 1929.
JRF aid also paid for an African American agent in the state education department to coordinate efforts within black communities and with white county and state officials. Rosenwald building agent Robert E. Clay helped African American Tennesseans raise the required community contributions of cash and labor to match the Rosenwald grant of $500 to $2,100, depending on school size. The Rosenwald Fund also matched local funds for the construction of teachers' homes and shops. These contributions convinced white-controlled county school boards to appropriate public funds for new black schools. By the building program's end in 1932, Tennessee communities had built 354 schools, nine teachers' homes, and ten shops. JRF aid provided $291,250; African Americans contributed $296,388, and whites $28,027. The bulk of construction funds came from tax revenues of $1,354,157. The rural school program also offered assistance for longer school terms, pupil transportation, industrial high schools, school and county libraries, and school beautification projects.
In 1928 the Rosenwald Fund revamped its programs to address broader issues in education and health for African Americans and race relations. New president Edwin R. Embree inaugurated programs for higher education that resulted in major gifts to Fisk University for its Department of Social Sciences, library, and endowment, as well as donations to Meharry Medical College and Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College for buildings and equipment. The JRF fellowship program supported hundreds of promising black leaders (and later, white scholars), including sociologist and Fisk president Charles S. Johnson and Arnaud Bontemps, author and Fisk librarian.
Concerned about the lack of medical facilities and treatment for southern African Americans, the JRF donated building and equipment funds to Knoxville Hospital and sponsored health education programs for teachers and public health nurses as well as funding studies of syphilis and tuberculosis in Tennessee. Race relations questions dominated later JRF projects as the fund moved beyond special assistance programs to ensuring equal opportunities for all Americans. The JRF was a major supporter of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and later the Southern Regional Council. Tennessee race relations projects included JRF subsidies for a department of race relations at the Nashville YMCA Graduate School and an educational program for industrial and farm workers at the Highlander Folk School.
Edwin R. Embree and Julia Waxman, Investment in People: The Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund (1949); Mary S. Hoffschwelle, Rebuilding the Rural Southern Community: Reformers, Schools, and Homes in Tennessee, 1914-1929 (1998)