• Rosenwald Schools were established in the early 20th century to give black students from the segregated south an opportunity to advance in education
  • Brooks Avenue School, formerly located in Whitehaven near Brooks and Gill Road, was a Rosenwald School. It would have closed in 1958.
  • Brooks Avenue School was one of 60 Rosenwald schools in Shelby County

Celebrating Rosenwald Schools Impact: Brooks Avenue School Alumni Host Reunion

George R. Williams Sr. remembers walking about a mile and a half from his home in the Whitehaven area to Brooks Avenue School. Although he doesn’t remember his address, he remembers the profound impact school had on him and his siblings.

Brooks Avenue School cannot be found on a map today. But for about 30 years the school has served black students in southwest Memphis and now a group of alumni are making sure its history is remembered.

A meeting for Brooks Avenue School graduates is scheduled for Aug. 28 at Riverside Missionary Baptist Church, 3590 S. Third St., during its 10 a.m. service.

Although the name is unrecognizable to Memphians today, the school is part of the legacy of an impactful and often forgotten educational project for black students during the 20th century.

Brooks Avenue School (formerly located near Brooks Road and Gill Road) was one of several Rosenwald schools that once existed throughout Shelby County. Julius Rosenwald, co-owner of Sears, Roebuck & Co., and Booker T. Washington partnered to open and fund schools that primarily served black students from rural communities to improve access to education.

There were about 250 Rosenwald schools in Tennessee alone, including 60 in Shelby County.

Williams, now 85, attended the school between 1942 and 1951. As an alumnus, Williams embarked on a journey to reunite former students of his long-closed alma mater.

“That was part of all the mystery and part of why I got involved and pushed this meeting,” said Williams, who now lives in Detroit. “I had a few friends, one lives in Chicago and the other lives in Hartford, Connecticut. We all went to the same school at the same time. And I said to him, I said, ‘I think that I’m going to do something. I think I’ll try to get the other members of the school together.'”

By reaching out to their networks, Williams and her classmates were able to convince about 20 former students of Brooks Avenue School to attend the celebration. In her research, Williams found that classes were last held at the school in 1958. Many schools in Rosenwald closed following the Brown v. Board of Education of the United States Supreme Court in 1954, which found that segregation of schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional.

Brooks Avenue School was one of several Rosenwald schools in Memphis.  Rosenwald Schools served students from black rural communities in the segregated south.

“I feel honored that things have changed so drastically from where [his mother] I started, hence what I went through as a teenager in elementary school…and I really appreciate where we are today,” Williams said. “Sometimes I think that today’s generation…does not fully understand or appreciate what we have endured and those before us have endured…”

Williams then graduated from Michigan State University and worked as an educator, probation officer and entrepreneur.

“Separate, but far from equal”

Brooks Avenue School was one of three Rosenwald schools in southwest Memphis. When walking to school with his siblings, Williams recalls being harassed by white students riding the school bus to a then-isolated Whitehaven High School.

The Rosenwald Schools were partially funded by the Rosenwald Foundation, which primarily served rural black communities. The community collected the other part of the funds. The teachers were usually local parents and adults without a teaching degree, according to Williams, who used what few resources they had to educate a new generation.

“We had no running water or electricity. Before I graduated, the school was wired…and a request was made to the county to wire the school. The county said no, they don’t had no funds to wire the school,” Williams recalled. . “The only concession they made was that if we sold enough cookies and ice cream and saved our neighborhoods to hook up the school, they would pay the monthly energy bill,” Williams recalled.

There was no auditorium at the facility, so the school held events such as graduations at Riverside Baptist Church, whose founders were instrumental in establishing the school.

Isom Strong is considered one of Brooks Avenue School's top fundraisers.  Rosenwald Schools were co-funded by the county, the community, and the Rosenwald Fund.

While researching her family history in Memphis, Lori Johnson found mention of her great-aunts – Savannah Strong Lee and Bertha Flowers Johnson – among Williams’ teachers in the acknowledgments of her book, “For He Healed Them All.” . In the book, he details his journey to overcoming the disease through his Christian faith.

“In a three-room elementary school (Brooks Avenue School, Shelby County, Tennessee), they taught and schooled us far beyond expectations in a separate, but far from equal environment,” Williams wrote. “You lacked educational materials for us. Some of us were from first or second generation families who were the first to go to primary school. Yet we were taught the basics and we were taught them well .”

Johnson’s great-uncle, Isom Strong, was also a prominent figure in the history of Brooks Avenue School and is credited with being the school’s chief spokesperson and fundraiser.

“He was a man who was a farmer and he was described in the census as a farmer and a peddler. He was not a man of great means, but he was a very respected man,” Johnson said, who now resides in the south. said Caroline.

Johnson learned more about his great-uncle’s personality and role in the schools from Williams, who knew him through the church. “It was exciting for me to find out that not only was Isom Strong involved in fundraising, but that two other parents were teaching at the school.”

Brooks Avenue School served many children from a pocket between Nonconnah and Whitehaven known as Johnson Sub, land which Johnson’s great-great-grandfather, once a slave, purchased and developed.

Preserving Southern Black History

Both Johnson and Williams note the difficulty in finding concrete details about the school. In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Rosenwald Schools as one of the most endangered historic places. Throughout the South, there were originally nearly 5,000 Rosenwald schools. Only about 500 of them have survived and only half of them have been restored.

“It’s kind of sad because it’s history that’s lost, that’s why it’s important for these people to come together and say, ‘Yeah, we had a school and we had teachers and they got us. educated “because the effects of the Rosenwald Schools were profound across the country,” Johnson said, citing the contributions of poet Maya Angelou and the late Congressman John Lewis, notable alumni of the Rosenwald School, as examples. .

The schools have reached more than 700,000 students in the South during their existence.

Johnson helped Williams research and find Brooks Avenue School alumni to invite to the reunion.

“We are the last of this generation to have benefited from the Rosenwald School program, and we need to recognize the role it has played in our lives,” Williams said. “We’re the last of something that was great, something that was wonderful. We’re the pieces left on the floor, and we’re going to honor that.”

The National Civil Rights Museum, which is hosting a photo exhibit focused on the Rosenwald Schools through Jan. 2, will host a private lunch and tour for after-service reunion attendees.

For more information about the meeting, email Williams at [email protected]

Astrid Kayembe covers South Memphis, Whitehaven and Westwood. She can be reached at [email protected], (901) 304-7929 or on Twitter @astridkayembe_.


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