Rosenwald Fellows and the Journey to Brown v. Board of Education
Discussion of the philanthropy of Julius Rosenwald often focuses on the encouragement and financial support he offered to African Americans through the building of 4,977 schoolhouses across 15 states. This work, initiated by Rosenwald as a friend and admirer of Booker T. Washington, strengthened communities and created the opportunity for elementary education where previously there had been none. A third of all African American children in the South from 1920-1950s benefited from the education they received in these Rosenwald schools.
But there was another avenue by which the Julius Rosenwald Fund supported the work of African Americans: the Rosenwald Fellowship program. This support provided remarkable sustenance to the “talented tenth,” as W.E.B. DuBois called the men and women who would become the first generations of black leaders in the arts and in scholarship, “fellows” who would attract wide attention and respect. In particular, it was recipients of Rosenwald fellowships who provided much of the insight and scholarly research that led to the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that struck down the legal concept of “separate but equal.”
The fellowship program was created in 1928 and implemented the following year. Rosenwald had just handed over management of his charitable foundation to a professional, Edwin Embree, a man he had met when they both served on the board of the Rockefeller Foundation.
Embree, the grandson of a prominent abolitionist, shared Rosenwald’s commitment to promoting opportunity for African Americans. One of his first proposals as head of the Rosenwald Fund (as noted in the executive committee minutes) was to create a program offering financial assistance to “individuals of exceptional promise.”
Rosenwald died in 1932, but the Fund went on until 1948, awarding 588 fellowships to African Americans and 222 to “white Southerners.” The names of these fellows read like a Who’s Who of achievement in fields from the arts to international diplomacy. James Weldon Johnson, author of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and acclaimed opera singer Marian Anderson, were among the first fellows; author James Baldwin and painter Jacob Lawrence were some of the last. In 1931 a fellowship went to future Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche.
The Rosenwald Fellows and Brown v. Board
In 1944 a Rosenwald fellowship enabled a young Pauli Murray, who had just graduated as valedictorian of her class at Howard University Law School, to continue her legal studies at the University of California at Berkeley. The restrictive housing covenants she encountered there infuriated her and, as she later wrote in her memoir, "Song in a Weary Throat", “fueled my determination to find the key to a successful legal attack upon racial segregation.”
In a seminar paper she argued that the impact of the “separate but equal” policy enshrined in the Plessy v. Ferguson case did “violence to the personality of the individual affected whether he is white or black.” Continuing her work after graduation, she researched and wrote a 740-page book called “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” detailing the varying segregation laws in each of the states. Thurgood Marshall later called this extraordinary work the “Bible of Brown v. Board.”
A few years later, Marshall, as director of the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the NAACP, and working towards a legal challenge to segregation in education, drew on this work as well as on input from an exceptional group of men and women, many of whose careers had been assisted by Rosenwald fellowships.
Robert Lee Carter, for example, had graduated from Howard University Law School with the highest grade point average in the school’s history. A Rosenwald fellowship in 1940 enabled him to continue his legal studies at Columbia University where he wrote a thesis exploring the “due process” clause of the 14th Amendment and the ways it had been used to challenge state laws allowing discrimination. Starting in 1944, he was on the staff of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund.
Mamie Phipps Clark and her husband Kenneth B. Clark were psychologists who had been granted Rosenwald fellowships in 1940 to study the effects of awareness of racial difference on young children. Their research included the famous experiment in which children were asked to choose which of two dolls they identified with (the moment brilliantly captured in a photograph by another Rosenwald fellow, Gordon Parks). The Clarks determined that the separation from white peers that they experienced severely undermined their sense of self-confidence and self-worth.
Carter recruited the Clarks for the NAACP’s legal work. and they testified in several early lawsuits challenging school segregation. They also wrote a paper, “The Effects of Segregation and the Consequences of Desegregation: A Social Science Statement,” and recruited 30 other scholars and psychologists—among whom were two more Rosenwald fellows, sociologists Ira DeA. Reid and E. Franklin Frazier—to sign it.
As the several legal challenges to school segregation were gathered into Brown v. Board of Education, and in response to questions raised by the Court, Marshall determined to bolster his arguments with historical context. Rosenwald fellows significantly contributed to that effort.
John Aubrey Davis was a professor of Political Science at Lincoln University whose graduate studies had been supported by three Rosenwald fellowships (1938, '39, and '40), and had been Robert Carter’s teacher when he was an undergraduate there.
Mabel Murphy Smythe was an economist awarded a Rosenwald fellowship in 1941. She became Thurgood Marshall’s deputy director for Non legal Research.
Also, three historians were recruited to offer insight into the history of public education in the South and the development of segregation:
Horace Mann Bond, president of Lincoln University, had strong ties to the Rosenwald Fund having received fellowships that enabled him to complete his graduate studies in the history of education and having worked for the Fund in a number of capacities including visiting and reporting on rural schools.
C. Vann Woodward, a white Fellow in 1940, was an expert on the history of the South after the Civil War.
John Hope Franklin’s two fellowships, in 1937 and 1938, enabled him to receive his PhD in history from Harvard. He went on to become the foremost African American historian of his generation.
“The "separate but equal" doctrine adopted in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, has no place in the field of public education.”Supreme Court Ruling, Brown v. Board of Education
The Supreme Court ruling issued on May 17, 1954 found segregation in schools “inherently unequal,” that it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and, as such, was unconstitutional. Scholar Alfred Perkins, writing in the Journal of Negro Education, determined that Rosenwald fellows had played a “pivotal role” in the extensive legal, historical, psychological and sociological arguments presented to the high court.
The fellows shared much in the way of experience and personal connections, but what “truly bound them together,” Perkins wrote, “was not acquaintance and shared experience but similarity of outlook, a particular view of the social purposes of their scholarly vocation. What they held, along with Rosenwald Fund officials, was the profound conviction that scholarly endeavor could provide the basis for societal reform.”
And what of the law student whose youthful insights about segregation in housing had led to work that inspired Thurgood Marshall? In her memoir, Pauli Murray wrote that it was only years after the landmark decision handed down in 1954 that she realized the extent to which the reasoning she had articulated in her 1944 seminar paper—the insight that segregation inherently places the “Negro in an inferior social and legal position” and that this does him inestimable harm— had helped form the arguments that resulted in the Brown decision.
Visiting Howard University in 1963, she asked her friend Spottswood Robinson, then dean of the Law School, if he knew what had become of her paper from many years before. “To my surprise,” she wrote, “he promptly produced it from his files and had a copy made for me.” And then he told her that, while working as part of the NAACP legal team preparing arguments for Brown v. Board, he had remembered her paper and taken another look at it. “It was,” he told her, “helpful to us.”
By any standard, the “exceptional promise” shown by Pauli Murray and the other men and women in whom the Rosenwald Fund invested paid off handsomely. We are still feeling the effects of their extraordinary contributions to our country.
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