In-depth: A small Florida town's mission to restore a historic Rosenwald School

Rosenwald schools were built between 1913 and 1932 to educate Black children
Rosenwald Schools
Posted at 10:54 AM, Sep 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-09 14:27:07-04

OKAHUMPKA, Fla. — Okahumpka is a small, rural town in central Florida, just about an hour and a half north of Tampa and the community is trying to restore an old school that Black children attended.

“Well, when I was growing up here – until 1968 – it was a segregated society,” said Charles Fields, who grew up in Okahumpka. “You get a little older in life when you – I’d say seven, eight years old – you gradually begin to notice the difference in our society that existed at that time.”

Fields is a former FBI agent and has lived around the country for work, but he still remembers how life was in his hometown and the school that gave local Black children the opportunity to attain an education.

Fields had said his older siblings went to the Okahumpka Rosenwald School. Rosenwald schools were where Black children could get an education during segregation and now, the community is trying to restore the old school that opened in 1929.

“Without these Rosenwald Schools, there would not be as many African Americans educated as there are,” said Fields.

Rosenwald Schools

Back when this school was originally constructed, the building only had two classrooms. On one side, students from grades one to four received their education together and on the other side, classes were held for students from grades five through eight.

There were more than 5,000 Rosenwald schools built during segregation. 120 of those schools were constructed right here in Florida, and of those, 23 are still standing.

“Julius Rosenwald was the president and CEO of Sears Roebuck Company out of Chicago,” said Chip D’Amico with the Okahumpka Community Club. Julius Rosenwald befriended Booker T. Washington, a man who was born enslaved and went on to become an educator, author and advisor to several presidents. “He saw a connection or a parallel, if you will, between how African American kids were being treated here and how Jews were being treated in Germany,” said Fields. With that, they formed a partnership to build schools that would educate a generation of Black children in the Jim Crow South.

Rosenwald Schools

Most Rosenwald schools have been demolished or in bad condition like the one in Okahumpka. The Okahumpka Community Club’s goal is to restore the school and they have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money to do just that.

They have brought in contractors and just about anyone who can help in an effort to keep this piece of Okahumpka history alive, including students of architecture from the University of Florida.

“So, as an architect, it’s really important to be able to go into this building and say, like, how do I want to portray this story and this building and how people can understand how it was way back,” said Ricardo Fanfan, a Master’s student of architecture at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Professor Bradley Walters is Fanfan’s professor of architecture and he said the building needs a few improvements to bring it back to its original condition. “So, the school has weathered quite a bit over the years. The roof and the foundation, in particular, need to be updated and restored,” said Professor Bradley. The windows will also be restored.

Rosenwald Schools

The school, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, closed in 1964. Once it is restored, plans are to make it into a museum that will tell the history of the town.

When asked why he thought it was vital to preserve and restore landmarks like this school, Fields said, “It’s important because of the education and, uniquely, this is, formally, an educational facility and it can continue to educate in the future because if you don’t recognize and teach the true history of America, this is not just Okahumpka history. This is not just Black history. This is American history… Tell the truth about it.”