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The Incredible True Story of How Booker T. Washington & the President of Sears Built 5,000 Schools for Generations of Southern Black Students

In 1910, Julius Rosenwald, president of the Sears, Roebuck mail-order empire, read Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, an account of his emancipation and founding of the Tuskegee Institute, originally a school for teachers that became one of today’s most venerated of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Rosenwald recognized a kindred spirit, someone who, like him, was a fierce believer in the power of self-determination.

A friendship sparked, and over the next 20 years the two men would team up to build more than 5,000 schoolhouses in black communities across the South, where existing facilities, in Washington’s words, were “as bad as stables” — if there were schools at all. With a scope that would be deemed unattainable today, their audacious scheme is credited by present-day economists with having created “a new black middle class in the South.”

The unlikely partners — a former slave and a first-generation Jewish American from Chicago, a Northerner whose company was known for shipping home-building kits through the mail — provided funding, blueprints and guidance that enabled black communities in 15 states to build inviting, permanent places for their children to learn.