On Tuesday, July 17th, William Raspberry, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The Washington Post, passed away in his home. In almost forty years as a columnist (he retired in 2005) Raspberry wrote thousands of opinion pieces in which he carved out a complicated ethical position on racial politics, urban violence and the importance of education. Raspberry was raised by two teachers in Okolona, Mississippi; his mother, Willa, who, at 106, still lives in Indianapolis and his father, James, who died at 89 in 1991.
On the occasion of his father’s funeral in 1991, Raspberry remembered him in a column in The Washington Post as a passionate and committed educator, recalling how in 1918 his father helped construct a Rosenwald school in a rural community in Mississippi. “He would spend part of the day teaching students—often under a tree—and the rest building the school,” (“Gifts of a Good Man,” The Washington Post, June 12, 1991). According to Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives, by Martha H. Swain, Elizabeth Anne Payne and Marjorie Julian Spruill, the school was in Dorsey, Mississippi. James Raspberry moved on from there to serve as principal in another Rosenwald School in Friendship, Mississippi, where he met William’s mother, Willa Tucker, an English teacher at the same school. Raspberry remembered in his early life that his parents’ home was a place where the children of extended family members would stay during the school year because their hometowns had no schools open to African Americans.
In his final column in 2005, Raspberry spoke about his own contribution to the improvement of education in his home state of Mississippi, a state that has some of the worst educational outcomes in America. Raspberry founded “Baby Steps” in Okolona, an organization that works to break the cycle of low achievement in school by engaging both children and parents in developing a positive home environment. Raspberry’s contributions to education as an adult can be traced back to his own positive early family life. In his final column, he also spoke of his belief that “pulling a community together around the future of its children can do wonders to transform both”, a statement that resonates strongly with the story of Rosenwald Schools. His passing was truly a loss and we regret missing the opportunity to add his voice to The Rosenwald Schools as an interview subject.
By Michael Rose