Welcome Consequences and Fulfilled Promise: Julius Rosenwald Fellows and Brown V. Board of Education

Article excerpt

In preparing its second brief in the Brown v. Board case, the NAACP relied heavily on the knowledge and research skills of many scholars, a number of whom had pursued graduate studies with awards from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a foundation devoted to the advancement of African Americans and improvement in race relations. Beyond helping talented people earn advanced degrees, the fellowship program had the larger purpose of strengthening Black leadership to effect social change. Examination, of the role played in Brown by these Rosenwald fellows reveals their significant contribution to this key Supreme Court decision, an outcome keeping with the Fund's main goal.

When the leaders of the Julius Rosenwald Fund decided in the late 1920s to move in a new direction, there was no way to determine what the results might be. With its central commitment to the advancement of African Americans and improvement in race relations, for over a decade, the Fund had concentrated on building schools in Black communities throughout the rural South. So successful had this effort been that when that program ended in 1932, over 5,300 educational buildings had been constructed, facilities that could accommodate one third of all African American children in southern schools (Embree & Waxman, 1949, p. 55). More fully than any other foundation at the time, the Rosenwald Fund even then "permeated the educational experiences of the Negro" (Bullock, 1970, p. 139).

With the extensive reorganization of the Fund in 1928, however, its resources began to move from constructing buildings to preparing people. The new thrust was embodied in a program of fellowships, available primarily to African Americans, but extended in the 1930s to White Southerners seeking to improve Black-White relations. Following a description of that program, this article focuses on a number of fellowship recipients and their contributions to the most significant civil rights decision of the 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. These fellows, by using their talents and scholarly abilities to effect societal change, advanced the Rosenwald Fund's most cherished purpose.

THE FELLOWSHIP PROGRAM

The fellowship program began somewhat tentatively, with grants made primarily to well-established writers and scholars-James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois are prominent examples-or to persons seeking further training in certain professional fields, notably medicine, librarianship, nursing, and home economics. The latter category represents what has been called an "institutional approach" to grant making, that is, an effort to strengthen institutions serving African Americans through additional training of staff members. By 1934, however, emphasis shifted to preparation of artists, scientists, college teachers, and scholars, without regard to professional affiliation. As the Fund's annual report for that year explained, "a few score superior persons thoroughly educated" would do more for minority advancement and race relations than "that number of average students and teachers, however worthy and indigent" (cited in Bielke, 1997, pp. 9-10). Henceforward the fellowships were to be awarded to persons of unusual promise, with the creative potential to contribute to human knowledge and improvement in race relations. During the 20-year life of the program, 586 African Americans received awards (Embree & Waxman, 1949, pp. 238-52).

The basic purpose of the fellowships was to enable recipients to develop their talents to the full, while earning valuable professional credentials. Underlying this purpose, however, was the Fund's conviction that the emergence of African Americans with distinguished careers and impressive accomplishments would give the lie to the notion of racial inferiority. Such conspicuous success would demonstrate that Black achievements were limited not by inherent inadequacy, but by the barriers of institutionalized racism, social isolation, educational deprivation, and lack of economic opportunity. …