Tucked away just a tiny distance from the historic community of Keatchie, Louisiana (DeSoto Parish) is a National Treasure. Literally.
Quite literally, in fact. A vestige of an era gone by.
I’ve been through Keatchie many times. It is a small community along a winding, often scenic two-lane road which leads from Logansport, Louisiana to U.S. Hwy. 171 just south of Shreveport.
I’ve seen this National Treasure many times before. But until just a few days ago, I’ve never quite taken the time to appreciate this treasure… what it is, what it was, what it means or what it meant, or to even realize that it is, in fact, a National Treasure. This is one of the many reasons I love producing “All Things Sabine”… it gives me a reason (or perhaps, equally stated, an excuse) to stop the car, turn around and take a closer look at sites.
This site is about an acre size lot of land featuring a simple and yet intriguing white wood-frame one story building. A nice brick sign on a concrete platform at the front of the property announces this is the “Rosenwald Longstreet School Community Center.” A second sign, on a post alongside the highway, declares this to be a “Historic Site.” The text of the sign explains that the Longstreet Rosenwald School is one of the last 500 buildings erected in Louisiana between 1912 and 1932 to educate African American children.
There were over 5,000 of these schools built in the U.S. mostly in the Southern states.
We took photos of the building, captured some aerial video, and walked the grounds. The property had a “good feel” to it, in spite of the day we were there being overcast and a tad gloomy. I guess knowing the history behind Longstreet Rosenwald, and my active imagination producing images of what once was, brought about this nice feel. I pictured children enthusiastically learning inside of the building and running and playing on the grounds outside. We spotted what appeared to be a hand cranked water pump hidden behind thick brush and a metal bucket lying on the ground, and this drew a mental picture of drinking water being toted into the school and the thrill of simple pleasures in a much simpler time.
The realization that the era of this school was hardly all rosy and simple, however, was not lost on us. This was a tough time for African Americans. They had achieved freedom after the Civil War, but times were tough now in different ways for them. Not the least of these was in the arena of education. African Americans were newly oppressed in the south by disenfranchisement and discriminatory laws enacted in the post-Reconstruction Southern states.
In 1912, African American educator and leader Booker T. Washington (who became a leading voice of former slaves and their descendants) approached philanthropist Julius Rosenwald about his concept to build rural schools desperately needed for African American children across the segregated south. This resulting partnership led to the establishment of the Rosenwald Fund, which eventually created some 5,000 schools, vocational shops and teacher’s homes in the United States.
By 1928, these schools housed one third of the Southern states rural African American school children and teachers. At the time of the program’s conclusion in 1932, it had served 663,625 students in 15 states. The way these schools were funded was both unique and inspiring.
Rosenwald, an American clothier who became part-owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, was determined that these schools become community projects. And so, rather than simply fully fund them, which I imagine he was capable of doing as he had become a very wealthy man with a very kind heart, he required other contributions to get these projects off the ground.
Rosenwald believed that philanthropies should use their grants as “seed” money to encourage individuals and public agencies to take responsibility for needed programs and services in their communities. Rosenwald required local communities to raise matching funds to increase their commitment to these projects. To promote collaboration between white and black citizens, Rosenwald required communities to commit public funds and/or labor to the schools, as well as to contribute additional cash donations. White school boards had to agree to operate and maintain the schools, and millions of dollars were raised by African-American rural communities across the South to fund better education for their children. These became phenomenal efforts with splendid results.
(Sadly, despite this program, by the mid-1930s, white schools in the South were worth per student more than five times what black schools were worth per students… So I suppose if you look at a glass half full rather than half empty, imagine the actual progress that resulted because of the Rosenwald schools… imagine how much harsher those stats would have been without these efforts).
Many of the Rosenwald schools constructed between 1912 and 1932 remained in operation until the 1960s and even 1970s when the 1954 Supreme Court ruling against segregation (Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka) was implemented.
Today, these schools are now 80-100 years old, and many suffer from abandonment, neglect, or lack of resources for continued use by the communities they once served.
In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Rosenwald Schools on the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list and created a special initiative to help raise awareness, find new uses, provide resources, and assist in the preservation and rehabilitation of the aging school buildings.
Four years ago, the National Trust began focusing the work of the entire organization around saving a portfolio of nationally significant, threatened historic places that are labeled National Treasures—and Rosenwald Schools were awarded National Treasure status.
Fortunately, the community of DeSoto Parish determined the Longstreet Rosenwald School worthy of preservation and the community came together to save this school structure and convert it to a “Community Center.”
DeSoto Parish has given this school new life and found new ways for this vestige of history to serve the needs of the local community. And so has been born, in this charming and quiet section of DeSoto Parish, Louisiana, a National Treasure.
SOURCES: National Trust for Historic Preservation, America’s Black Holocaust Museum