Beginning on Friday, August 28, and continuing through Thursday, September 3, 2015, the newly restored Old Greenbelt Theatre will be showing the new film “Rosenwald” which tells the story of Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932), president of Sears, Roebuck and Company from 1908 to 1924, and one of America’s great philanthropists. Although Rosenwald was involved with many other aspects of philanthropy, he is best known to us in Prince George’s County as the creator of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which promoted and supported the construction of schools for African-American children during the period between the two World Wars.
These “Rosenwald Schools” (built between 1917 and 1932) have attracted a great deal of interest since 2002, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed them, as a class of buildings, in that year’s list of the Eleven Most Endangered Buildings.
One of Rosenwald’s favorite causes was the education of African-American children; encouraged by Booker T. Washington, he established the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1917, specifically aimed at the visible, physical production of school buildings. From that time until Rosenwald’s death in 1932, the Rosenwald Fund contributed more than four million dollars to the building of approximately 5000 new schools for black children (as well as additional shop buildings and teachers’ homes) in 15 southern states.
The fund itself provided only seed money for school construction; the majority of the cost came from public taxation, and each local black community was required to match the contribution of the fund in either cash or in-kind contribution such as lumber or labor, highlighting Rosenwald’s determination that the community should be fully invested in the effort. The Rosenwald program did much to improve black schools, offering architectural plans that were state-of-the-art for the time period, and providing incentives to local African-American communities which invariably led to further improvements. In the state of Maryland, between 1918 and 1932, 156 schoolhouses were constructed in 20 counties.
The school buildings in Maryland ranged from small one-room schoolhouses to a 15-classroom high school. Fifty-three (over one-third) of the 156 schools built with Rosenwald support, survive – a percentage of survival significantly higher than in the other states where the schools were built. In Prince George’s County, 27 schools were built with Rosenwald Fund support, and several of the survivors are located near Greenbelt – in the community of Lincoln (Lanham), Collington (Bowie), and Lakeland (College Park).
The Old Greenbelt Theatre is located in the Greenbelt Roosevelt Center (shopping mall), 129 Centerway, in Greenbelt (301-329-2034). The theatre management is presently working on scheduling special discussions in conjunction with specific showtimes. Check the website (greenbelttheatre.org).