Rosenwald and Uncle Len
Recent books and a documentary film have lifted up the fine work of Julius Rosenwald (shown here), president of Sears, Roebuck in the early twentieth century and one of the most generous philanthropists of his time.
Rosenwald was most famous for building over 5,000 schools for African American children during the years of segregation. The program was conceived by Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, but for most of its history it was carried out by the program’s forgotten man, my Uncle Len.
Samuel Leonard Smith, my grandfather’s brother and mother’s uncle, isn’t mentioned in the excellent documentary film “Rosenwald” or in many of the books, but his role was crucial.
Between 1911 and 1920, the program was run out of the Tuskegee Institute, overseen by Booker T. Washington and handled by his education and architecture faculty. About 250 schools were built during those years, most of them in the Tuskegee area. One of the core principles was that the schools had to be cofunded by the local community.
After Washington died, Rosenwald sought out the leading rural school architect of the time, Fletcher B. Dresslar, who was a member of the faculty at Peabody College in Nashville, to evaluate and revise the school designs. In 1920, Rosenwald hired S. L. Smith, Dresslar's protégé at Peabody and the “Negro School Agent” for Tennessee, to manage the program.
Over the next 17 years, Uncle Len ran the program from his office on the Peabody campus, building an additional 5,000 schools. It’s been estimated that during those years, one-third of the South’s rural Black school children and teachers were served by Rosenwald schools.
In the course of his work, Smith became friends with many prominent people. These included Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR, and several times he traveled to the White House to visit them. When Marian Anderson came to Nashville to give a concert, the first thing she did was go to Uncle Len’s house to pay him a visit.
This fascinating bit of history has several family footnotes. My father attended Peabody in the late 1930s, not long after Uncle Len’s retirement. A short time later my parents, Paul Kidd and Ida Sue Smith Kidd, were married at Wightman Chapel, just down the street.
And years after that, our daughter Maggie attended the University School of Nashville, formerly Peabody Demonstration School. I’m sure that, nearly a century before Maggie, Uncle Len walked its halls.