Keeping Rosenwald's legacy alive, one chicken and fish sandwich at a time.
If you grew up in a little bitty Southern town during the 1960s and 1970s, you know about "the handoff".
That's where - at the beginning of every summer - parents or grandparents would fry up some chicken, take their kids to the train station and hand them and the chicken over to a kindly porter to keep an eye on them as they traveled Up North - or Down South - for a couple of months.
The reverse handoff was repeated at the end of summer, but with weeping and wailing: the city relations who'd spent the summer de-stressing down South would wail over having to return to the concrete jungles where they resided, and we country bumpkins would weep over having to leave the fast-paced excitement of the cities to return to what we suddenly considered Hootervilles.
As a kid growing up in Rockingham, I summered in Washington every year, and the one thing I looked forward to upon returning south was telling my friends about the huge stores, some of which had - get this - stairs that moved!
That's right: you just stand there and the stairs would carry you up. Or down.
I'm not sure they always believed me, but those were actual conversations.
My former editor at the News & Observer, the late George Lawrence, and I regarded each other warily until we learned that we'd both spent our summers as kids on trains going south to north alone and back again. We bonded instantly after that.
Such recollections are probably why seeing the country's retail landscape being re-shaped so drastically is painful for me. Sure, finding those blue gators in a size 13D online without getting dressed is convenient, but is that worth the tradeoff of not being awed by stairs that move?
Stores that we thought would be here forever exist now only in memory, while others are on life support, raging - as the poet Dylan Thomas wrote - "against the dying of the light."
The inevitable-seeming fate of none of those moribund stores is as painful for me and for the nation, I suspect, as Sears.
When I interviewed filmmaker Aviva Kempner three years ago, she called Sears "the Amazon before its time."
You could, at one point, buy from Sears not just furniture for every room of your house, but you could also order the house. I mean, they'd box that sucker up and ship it to you.
As Sears seems to be - in Mike Tyson's beloved phrase - "fading off into Bolivia," we should remember just how groundbreaking a store it was.
We should also remember how groundbreaking its key investor was.
Julius Rosenwald wasn't a founder of Sears, Roebuck & Co., but his investment into the floundering company saved it and made him a mutli-millionaire at a time when one dollar was the equivalent of $27.
Sure, let's celebrate him as a great businessman, but investing in Sears was only his second best investment. Rosenwald, you see, should also be remembered for the investment he made in people and education.
He used his money to help build more than 5,000 schools to educate poor people across the South. Among the legendary Americans who attended these "Rosenwald schools" were Marian Anderson, Gordon Parks, Ralph Ellison, Katherine Dunham, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes and Dr. Charles Drew. Woody Guthrie received a Rosenwald Fellowship to “write books, ballads, songs, and novels that will help people to know each other’s work better.”
Many of the people who attended Rosenwald Schools now have schools named after them.
How's that for a return on investment?
When I suggested to Kempner that Rosenwald was more famous for giving away money than for making it, she said “He absolutely preferred that... Even as a young married man, he already had this principle that his family tells about – save a third, spend a third and give away a third."
Rosenwald was born in Springfield, Ill., in a house across the street from Abraham Lincoln’s. While young, he read Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery, and Booker T. and he became friends. He asked the former slave and founder of Tuskegee Institute what he wanted.
A new building? Some money?
Nope. Washington bemoaned the lack of preparation with which too many black students from the Jim Crow South arrived at Tuskegee, and he suggested Rosenwald address that issue by focusing his charity on elementary schools. He did.
Claudia Brown, of the N.C. Historical Preservation Office, said “N.C. had more (Rosenwald Schools) than any other state. We had 813 projects. The Rosenwald Fund provided the seed money, 10 to 20 percent, and the local folks would provide the rest.”
Among the "local folk" still providing the rest are the Mitchell family and friends in South Mill, N.C. The McBride Colored School, financed in part by Rosenwald's fund, is now the re-built Rosenwald Community Center on Highway 343. In June a roadside marker was unveiled at a ceremony. A fundraiser for the center was held on Oct. 5.
Cousins Chiquita and Freda Mitchell - whose fathers Jacob and Melvin Mitchell attended the school, helped build the center and now serve as its president and vice president, respectively - said they and others felt compelled to help the center both because of what it has meant to the community and "so individual members of the community wouldn't have to keep coming out of their pockets" to keep it afloat.
"People rent it for wedding receptions, repasts, holiday dinners... but lately there haven't been enough" to sustain it, Freda Mitchell said.
They sold enough fish and chicken dinners, along with pigs feet and tater salad, to pay the center's bills through February, she said, and some of the people who bought dinners pledged to contribute landscaping and renovation expertise.
It is the supremest irony that Rosenwald, who dropped out of school at 16 to learn the clothing business, and Washington, an ex-slave whom it was illegal to educate during his childhood, are among this country’s greatest educators.
It also speaks to the greatness of America.
If you're interested in contributing to this still-vital community landmark, one that may, remarkably, still be standing when the last Sears shutters its doors, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out about other Rosenwald schools in North Carolina, visit ncmuseumofhistory.org/rosenwald-schools-north-carolina.