Sep 29 21

Juniper Level: Refurbishing an Old School For New Opportunities

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A century ago, two men with a shared dream of increasing educational opportunities for Black people came together. The results of their efforts are felt in and around Raleigh and throughout the nation. Their stories could not have involved more different origins. Still, they fused a common purpose in building Panther Branch, also called Juniper Level, and almost 20 other schools throughout the Raleigh area.

In his work Up From Slavery, renowned civil rights leader and educational pioneer Booker T. Washington described the first instance he heard of a school for Black people. He shared, “one day at the coal mine, I happened to overhear two miners talking about a great school for coloured people somewhere in Virginia.” As he strained to hear, Washington said he heard about “opportunities . . . provided by which poor, but worthy students” could work to pay for tuition, board, and supplies.”

“As they went on describing the school, it seemed to me to be the greatest place on earth, and not even Heaven presented more attractions to me at that time than the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia,” Washington recalled.

To build the school system he dreamed of, Washington partnered with Julius Rosenwald. Rosenwald was a Jewish entrepreneur and investor born during the most violent period of the Civil War in Springfield, Illinois. Raised by the owner of a small clothing store, Rosenwald developed what some called “a genius for retail.” His natural talent led him to invest in the innovative Sears and Roebuck company, becoming its president at 33.

Rosenwald’s instincts for philanthropy matched those of his entrepreneurial prowess. His generous nature coupled well with the idea that money donated should never be money wasted. Rosenwald once mused, “I can testify that it is nearly always easier to make $1,000,000 honestly than to dispose of it wisely.”

Rosenwald’s commitment to humanity stemmed from his devotion to his Reform Judaism faith. Uneasy with the great wealth that accompanied success and responsibility, he turned to his rabbi. Alongside teachings from his rabbi, Rosenwald studied Moses Maimonidies’ ideas on the eight degrees of charity. As a result, he became determined to share his wealth and wanted to do it in the most effective manner possible.

At the opening of the 20th century, education for many people of color meant more than pursuing career opportunities. For example, Jim Crow laws made participation in voting contingent on one’s ability to read and write. In addition, testing standards intentionally imposed disadvantages on people of color, requiring them to understand complicated text while white counterparts had to comprehend child-level literature.

Rosenwald approached Washington after reading his landmark autobiography. Coming from a historically oppressed community himself, Rosenwald reached out to Washington to work together to solve the mass undereducation of black youth in America.

Washington and Rosenwald resolved to help young black youths break down barriers through education. Together, they would build more than 5,300 “Rosenwald schools” throughout the rural South. Rosenwald believed in only making large donations when other partners had substantial “skin in the game.” An equal division of finances from himself, local government, and community combined to fund the schools.  

Rosenwald schools targeted middle school-aged children, providing vital education when obligations to household work started to demand their time. Washington and Rosenwald’s work provided an essential service in preparing young men and women to desire more for their lives than working manual labor jobs.

By the time Juniper Level opened in 1926, Rosenwald schools had sprouted across the nation. North Carolina boasted the most of any state with several built-in and around the Wake County area. 

As Shaw University alum Ella Perry recently told Walter Magazine, the community constructed the school. She explained, “I listened to my dad talk about how the men in the community built the school.” Timber for the building came from her uncle’s farm. Many pitched in to contribute to making the school a local centerpiece. Across the country, similar efforts made Rosenwald schools the pride of local communities almost everywhere they were found. 

The mission of the Rosenwald schools ended in 1956 when Chief Justice Earl Warren led the United States Supreme Court to strike down segregated schools. As children integrated across the country, school systems built for black students disintegrated as they joined their fellow students at established white schools. 

Many students like Ms. Perry kept fond memories of their time in schools like Juniper Level even as the nation made the right decision to strike down school segregation, one of the more odious aspects of Jim Crow laws.

Today, the building may no longer serve as an active educational facility, but it has lost none of the love and admiration from the community. Just as when built nearly a century ago, the local community has come together to raise money, donate supplies, and a lot of elbow grease to restore the building to its original splendor.

HTI is proud to support the efforts of Juniper Level Missionary Baptist Church as it leads the way in restoring this community’s crown jewel. Just as we refurbish old laptops for new uses, this building can help the church expand its mission to help young men and women achieve their goals. We proudly make a Google Chromebook donation to assist in these efforts.

Together we can make what was old and possibly forgotten a new pillar of hope and success.