A Family Affair

Posted June 20th, 2011 by

Being interested in film and history, I jumped at the chance to work on the Rosenwald Schools film.  It’s surprising how little most people know about them given that there were almost 6000 scattered across the South.  I was shocked to find out that Rosenwald Schools were a part of my own personal history—-my own grandfather Robert Davis went to a Rosenwald School.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise. He was born in 1919 in tiny Franklin, Virginia. The school, probably built in the mid-1920s was small and crowded with only one room for 30 students per grade.   Yet it was the only grammar school for black students in the town so my grandfather made the hour long walk (The white students had busses).

The school did not have many resources; it only had one teacher when my grandfather first started attending.  His school did have had a basketball team and a sandlot football team that played without jerseys or pads.  My grandfather enjoyed the school but few of his fellow students would go to high school and even fewer would graduate from high school. Most students usually dropped out to work as peanut farmers or in the mill. But my grandfather always enjoyed school and wanted to have a professional degree.  He was one of the six who went on to high school, and would be one of the only two people from high school who went on to college and the first in his family.

He graduated from Virginia State in 1937 and enlisted in the army soon after.  After the war he got his Masters in Architecture from the University of Wisconsin (the University of Virginia did not take black students). While there he met my grandmother who was pursuing her masters in history. He graduated in 1949 and married her in July of that year. He couldn’t get a job at a white school so he started teaching horticulture at Prairie View A&M, where my mother was born. Eventually he became a landscape architect in the state department—making him one of few black architects in the country–and would travel the world building embassies and residences for diplomats.

On the whole my grandfather’s experience at the Rosenwald School was unremarkable. However, at a time when few black children in Virginia went to school the fact that my grandfather’s experience at the school was so normal is actually extraordinary. What is important is not that the Rosenwald Schools were great schools but that they were the only schools and gave people like my grandfather a chance.  My grandfather is a man of incredible drive and was a diligent student so he may have ended up in the same place he is now even without the school, but chances are he would have been building boxes in the local factory like his father instead of building embassies. So thanks Julius I guess I owe you one.

Robert L Ruffins: Ciesla Foundation summer intern, Harvard History, and African American Studies major and blog manager.