Photographer Andrew Feiler Reflects on the Powerful Histories of Rosenwald Schools
Photographer and author Andrew Feiler had never heard of Rosenwald schools before a 2015 meeting with Jeanne Cyriaque, a specialist in African American heritage for the state of Georgia. But after his conversation with Cyriaque, he became galvanized by the joint mission of philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and reformer Booker T. Washington to close the racial education gap, which led to the construction of 4,978 schools for Black children during the early 20th century.
The meeting sparked Feiler’s three-and-a-half-year quest to document 105 of the approximately 500 extant school buildings, resulting in his new book, A Better Life for Their Children, published by the University of Georgia Press in April of 2021. The book captures their stories and pays homage to the historical ties between photography and Rosenwald schools; Washington shared several images of the first completed schools with Rosenwald to encourage further support. While many of the structures Feiler visited had fallen into disrepair, he encountered others that have found new life through adaptive reuse. Several of the schools in the book have received National Trust grants over the years.Photos from the book (which contains an afterword by Brent Leggs, executive director of the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund) are tentatively slated to be exhibited at Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights starting in May. “The Rosenwald school program represents people coming together across race, religion, and region to fundamentally make the world a better place,” says Feiler. “If there is a central theme in this story, it is that our individual actions can indeed make a difference.”