Hill Supports Grant to Successfully Preserve Bigelow Rosenwald School
Little Rock, Ark. — The Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council has announced that it will fully fund the Bigelow Rosenwald School project at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA). This $634,594 grant will provide critical maintenance to an institution that holds great historic significance to the African American community in central Arkansas. The facility will severe as a museum, meeting place for the university, and community center.
Rep. French Hill (R-AR) became a long-time supporter of this project after Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert and the community of Bigelow alerted him that the school was in dire need of repairs. At that time, Hill promptly met with community leaders during June 2015.
“After five years of partnership and collaboration, our efforts to preserve and amplify the reach of the Bigelow Rosenwald School have borne fruit, and this significant grant will ensure that the school that has served as a central meeting place for community and ideas, reflecting its tradition of serving Arkansas’s African American community for the past century, will endure,” said Rep. Hill. “I was proud to have played a role in this effort, and I look forward to supporting UCA’s collaborative partnership with the Rosenwald Community Cultural Center to restore the building.”
Constructed in 1926, the Bigelow Rosenwald School was part of a national building program supported by the Julius Rosenwald Fund established to improve African American access to education across the South. This school is one of the 389 schools and associated buildings constructed in Arkansas through assistance from this fund. Of these 389, the Bigelow Rosenwald School is one of only 18 of those original buildings that remain today. Preserve Arkansas included the school in its 2012 list of “Arkansas’s Most Endangered Historic Places,” which led to the organization’s classifying its restoration as a priority.
Although older Arkansans knew about the school’s importance, many younger Arkansans were not aware of its history. Because of this, Hill worked with UCA to host a documentary screening in 2016 to raise awareness about the Bigelow Rosenwald School. This screening led UCA to get involved in saving the school, with UCA starting work on grant proposals for saving and restoring the school to its former glory. When the school applied for a grant through the Department of Arkansas Heritage in 2019, Hill provided a letter of support to supplement their grant application packet.
“I love seeing people achieve their goals and have their dreams fulfilled,” said Sen. Rapert. “I am told the local community had envisioned the preservation of the Bigelow Rosenwald School for well over 30 years. Congratulations to all of them for seeing this through and being awarded a grant to make it all happen. It is a wonderful day for the community and will be a historic treasure for all concerned.”
“The preservation of history is very important to me. I am so happy to have played a part in helping my constituents in their effort to save, restore and preserve the Bigelow Rosenwald School just outside of Conway, Arkansas. Our state has a rich heritage and the preservation of this school which was the center of education for black students in a small rural community in Central Arkansas should be a priority,” said Sen. Rapert.
“When the community asked me to help them make their vision become a reality I was more than happy to help. One of the first people I called about their dream was Congressman French Hill and his wife Martha. Without hesitation, they both said they would love to help with the Rosenwald School project. I want to thank Congressman Hill and his wife for the encouragement, support and inspiration they have given to help the community gain the support needed to be successful,” said Sen. Rapert.
“After gaining the support of Congressman Hill for the Bigelow Rosenwald School project, the community leaders let me know they were worried about the long-term sustainability of the project which envisions a museum as part of the restoration. Who would take care of the building, run the program and ensure future generations would learn the story of the local black community, the school and its impact in context of the greater story of ending segregation in the South? I knew we needed a partner for them that could make it all happen and ensure the educational aspect of the vision could be fulfilled. I am so happy that Dr. Charlotte Green, President Houston Davis and the University of Central Arkansas Board of Trustees caught the vision and offered to partner with the local community,” said Sen. Rapert.
"The Rosenwald Schools played an important role in the history of education in the U.S. We hope to help preserve and uplift this important piece of Arkansas and American history, while working with Bigelow community members to ensure the facility meets their needs and accurately tells their story," said University of Central Arkansas President Houston Davis. "We sincerely thank the ANCRC for the state funding and assistance to revitalize this property, as well as Congressman French Hill for his steadfast support to make this project a reality."
“We are fortunate, through the assistance of many within the community and outside the community, to receive a grant to fully restore the Bigelow Rosenwald School,” said Mr. William Evans. “Today represents a significant milestone and evidence of our faith towards realizing our community’s vision of turning the school into an interpretive museum where people can gather and learn about black history in the area - this means a great deal.”
“I am glad that the local site will be preserved. Our history is important and I would love to see all of our historical sites in Perry County preserved,” said Judge Toby Davis.
“Our staff with the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program has documented all the Rosenwald Schools in Arkansas,” said Stacy Hurst, Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism and Secretary of the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council. “We’re grateful that Congressman Hill embraced the potential for the Bigelow school and put his support behind the effort to restore and utilize this important historic resource. This project perfectly illustrates the intended purpose of ANCRC grant funds.”
In 1912, Booker T. Washington, an educator and civil rights activist, approached Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist and president of Sears Roebuck, about a concept to build rural schools desperately needed for African American children across the segregated South. In 1917, Julius Rosenwald and his family created the Rosenwald Fund to donate money to public schools, universities, Jewish charities, and African American institutions.
According to the National Trust of Historic Preservation, this was the most important initiative to advance African American education in the early 20th century.
The Rosenwald Fund created more than 5,300 African American schools across 15 states in the South from 1912 until 1932. By 1928, Rosenwald Schools served one-third of the South’s rural African American schoolchildren. A Rosenwald school was often the first school building for African American students in a Southern community. Building a Rosenwald school allowed students and teachers to move the education instruction out of churches, barns, or fields to a more traditional structure. A few larger schools had auditoriums that were used by both students and by the community.
The Rosenwald Fund granted funds to support education in general and the Rosenwald schools served as more than schoolhouses. They became centers for communities to gather and gave people hope for a better future. When a 1954 Supreme Court ruling declared segregation in education unconstitutional, Rosenwald Schools became obsolete, seeing many of the schools abandoned or demolished.
In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Rosenwald Schools on the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list and created a special initiative to help raise awareness, find new uses, provide resources, and assist in the preservation and rehabilitation of the aging school buildings.
In 2004, the Bigelow Rosenwald School was placed on the National Register of Historic Places for being a significant part of Julius Rosenwald's legacy as a benefactor of African American education in the South, and as the only surviving Rosenwald School in Perry County.
In 2020, Rep. French Hill co-sponsored H.R. 2350, the Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Schools Act of 2020, which requires the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a special resource study of the sites associated with the life and legacy of the noted American philanthropist and business executive Julius Rosenwald, with a special focus on the Rosenwald Schools.