Opening Doors to the Past
Preserving Memory and Community Spaces Across Rural Alabama

A collaborative team of public historians, architects, designers and construction managers are engaged in a race against time to save important pieces of Alabama history. In 1914, during racial segregation, school buildings for many Black rural communities did not exist, and if they did, consisted of dilapidated, dimly lit, one-room schoolhouses. With leadership from Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, a private initiative was started to assist communities in the construction of new school buildings to improve the quality of education. The initiative provided one-third of the total funding, each community raised one-third, and the public board of education contributed the remaining funds for the construction of the new rural schools. There was an enthusiastic response, and by 1928, one-third of the South’s rural Black school children and teachers were served by Rosenwald Schools. The schools were a tangible statement of the equality of all children and were a focal point of community identity and aspirations.

Following integration of schools, few of the Rosenwald Schools were repurposed, and many have sat empty and fallen into disrepair or have been destroyed. It is not known exactly how many of the Rosenwald Schools remain in Alabama. The research team at Auburn University is using an innovative approach to community-driven historic preservation to identify remaining schools and work with communities to preserve them digitally and physically before they are lost. A collaborative effort between the College of Architecture, Design and Construction and the College of Liberal Arts, project is led by a team that includes Junshan Liu, Dr. Richard Burt, and Hunter McGonagill (building science), Gorham Bird (architecture), David Smith (graphic design), Dr. Keith Hebert and Elijah Gaddis (history), and collaborator Dr. Danielle Willkens at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The team is using a collaborative approach to preservation with a focus on telling the story of these buildings through combining history, community narratives, architectural preservation and technology. Community engagement is fundamental to this process. The first step with each of these schools is for the team to reach out to community members to engage them in the work. Dr. Gaddis said, “The goal is to equip the community with the ability to tell their own stories.” The public history faculty have been holding oral history workshops for community members to learn how to collect stories from each other and community elders, including alumni of the Rosenwald schools. Along with the history harvest, the team works with the communities to digitally scan the schools, using a combination of tools, including LiDAR 3D scanning, Building Information Modeling, or BIM, 360-degree photography, GIS mapping, photogrammetry and drones to provide an accurate representation of the building’s current state. The resulting images and information digitally preserve the buildings and allow safe, virtual access to even more deteriorated buildings. The goal of the work is through this collaborative approach to preserve the history of the Rosenwald Schools in Alabama and to bring this moment in history to life to educate the public about the inequities in the education system, the work of the Julius Rosenwald Fund and the impact of the schools on so many children and communities in Alabama.

The research project has provided a robust opportunity for student engagement as well. Undergraduate architecture students visited the Tankersley Rosenwald School along with Bird and Liu as part of a historical preservation and documentation class. The students spent the day assisting with scanning the building and meeting with community members; of the experience Bird said, “Being on site in the building, and hearing about the importance of the place from the community, underscores the meaning and relevance of the skills and expertise the students are learning in class.” A group of students from the history department also visited one of the schools and engaged in community discussion. Hebert agreed with Bird and added, “There is no substitute for the power of place in helping students understand the stakes of this work. For history students it also allows them to see the community engagement process in action.”

The project is also a success story for the new piloted Auburn University Creative Work and Social Impact Scholarship (CWSIS) funding. Funding from the CWSIS, College of Architecture, Design and Construction Seed Grant, and McWhorter Fund for Excellence Grant allowed the team to pilot the preservation methodology and process with four Rosenwald schools. That initial work has led to a wonderful partnership with the Museum of Alabama, at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery, to exhibit the work in 2023 and external funding from the National Park Service to stabilize and preserve the Tankersley Rosenwald School, a school at risk of collapse. Auburn University Tiger Giving Day funds have also allowed the team to expand the number of Rosenwald schools in the initial pool to nine.

Scans have been completed for the first four schools identified for the project: New Hope School (Chambers County), Oak Grove School (Hale County), Mount Sinai School (Autauga County) and Tankersley School (Montgomery County). The team is beginning community outreach to determine which schools will be included in the next stage of scans. As of fall 2022, structural preservation work on the Tankersley School has begun, starting with an assessment by a structural engineer. While the breadth of the task is still being fully understood, the team hopes to digitally and physically preserve as many of these buildings as possible before they disappear and present the stories of these buildings to the public so everyone can engage with the legacy of the Rosenwald schools.