Highland Park in Prince George's County, Maryland, is a working-class neighborhood of aging cottages and tiny churches just down the road from FedEx Field, the home of the Washington Redskins, a billion-dollar football franchise. Every Sunday the Redskins are in town, the stadium's luxury boxes fill up with the area's movers and shakers: wealthy entrepreneurs, prosperous lobbyists, the nation's political leaders.

Seventy-five years ago the contrasts in these few square miles were no less striking, not just between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, but also between black and white. In the 1920s, Highland Park was a rural community of truck farms and dirt roads settled by African American families barred from all-white areas nearby. Then and now, there was a brand-new school building in the neighborhood with an all-black enrollment. But in 1928, the school was segregated by law. Black students, from first through 12th grade, traveled miles by foot to get to Highland Park, while white students rode past them on buses headed to better-equipped buildings.

Like much of the South in the Jim Crow era, public schools in Prince George's County were separate and profoundly unequal. In 1923, the Prince George's school system spent an average of $77 for a white high school student and $28 for whites in elementary school. For black students – many of whom ended their formal schooling early because the huge county had only one black high school – the average per pupil expense was less than $14. White teachers were paid more than black teachers and whites had a longer school year. There were an average of 27 students for every white teacher, compared to 44 students in black classrooms. Black schools had no new equipment, just tattered books and scratched-up desks handed down from white schools.

Despite these insults, African American families were pleased to dedicate Highland Park School in 1928, the second school to educate black high-schoolers in Prince George's County. And even in a new century – almost fifty years after school segregation was outlawed, after a generation of busing to integrate classrooms, and now a return to neighborhood schools in Prince George's – the Highland Park School is still a source of pride.

On a humid afternoon in May, a dozen alumni of Highland Park, many now in their 80s, met to remember their school days and to honor a white philanthropist who helped make their education possible. Gathered outside the old building – now the Head Start annex for a state-of-the-art elementary school next door – the alumni unveiled a plaque citing the importance of the school as one of some 5,000 public schools built throughout the South with the help of Sears, Roebuck executive Julius Rosenwald. The marker's dedication culminated years of work to preserve the building and the memory of Rosenwald, who had an enormous influence on the education of rural blacks in the first half of the twentieth century.

"Julius Rosenwald's picture was the picture you saw when you came in the door," says Mildred Ridgley Gray, describing the Ridgley School, a two-room Rosenwald school she attended – on land donated by her family – before moving on to Highland Park in 1933. "Julius Rosenwald was the man who gave us public education."

The work to preserve Highland Park School is one of dozens of efforts around the South to find and save the schools built between 1913 and 1932 with Rosenwald's seed money. In June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Rosenwald schools to its list of the 11 most endangered historic places in America. "Today many of these modest landmarks are unrecognized and falling into ruin," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust. "These schools made a huge difference throughout the South. They're not only part of our heritage, but many of these buildings can continue to serve the communities in which they exist."

The Rosenwald schools grew out of a partnership between black educator Booker T. Washington and Rosenwald, a Chicagoan and son of German-Jewish immigrants, who bought an interest in Sears for $37,500 in 1895 and soon built the mail-order firm into a merchandising giant. Like many wealthy businessmen of his time who turned to philanthropy, Rosenwald was concerned about the dismal state of education for blacks in the South.

In 1912, as part of $687,000 he gave to charities on the occasion of his 50th birthday – worth about $11 million in today's dollars – Rosenwald awarded $25,000 to Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute. At Washington's suggestion, a small portion of the gift was used to build six schools for blacks in rural Alabama. With the success of that experiment, Rosenwald launched a challenge-grant program that ultimately led to the construction of 4,977 schools, 217 teachers' homes, and 163 shop buildings in 15 states, from Maryland to Texas. The program ended in 1932, the year Rosenwald died.

Even though Rosenwald did not believe in attaching his name to his charitable works – which later included Chicago's world-class Museum of Science and Industry – the schoolhouses quickly became known as Rosenwald schools. But he provided just a portion of the costs. The Highland Park School, a "seven-teacher type," cost $22,800 to build. Records of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, the foundation he created in 1917, show that $1,000 was contributed by local blacks, $1,850 from the Rosenwald Fund, and $19,950 from public monies. More typical were schools like the nearby two-teacher Ridgley School, to which Rosenwald donated $700, local blacks $200, and the public coffers $4,400.

Private white donors also were asked to help with the schools, but other than donating land for a site, these contributions were minimal. Instead, white opposition was the case in some places, such as Warren County, Mississippi, where the school superintendent quietly arranged for the quick construction of 25 schools to prevent the Ku Klux Klan from obtaining a court injunction to block the buildings.

Over the years, more than $28 million was spent on the schools, but Rosenwald gave only $4.4 million, or 15 percent. Another $4.7 million, 17 percent of the total, came from local blacks, in the form of cash, labor, land, and materials. The largest portion, $18 million, came from the public treasury, which suited Rosenwald's goals. "The contributions from the Julius Rosenwald Fund were simply a stimulus," the Fund reported in 1937. "The great bulk of the funds…came as it properly should in a public school program, from public funds."

While the required donation from African American communities amounted to double taxation, their leaders nonetheless seized Rosenwald's offer, calling on residents to organize fundraising drives to cover their share of a new school. "Get busy, Laurel, or hang your heads in shame," admonished the Prince George's Colored Public School Trustees in a 1924 report describing the pitiful buildings in the town of Laurel.

The results were impressive. In suburban Maryland's Montgomery County, Nina Clarke, a student and teacher at Rosenwald schools, remembers fried-chicken suppers and sandlot baseball games to raise money for the schools in the 1920s. In one place, struggling sharecroppers set aside an area planted with cotton as the "Rosenwald Patch" and donated the profits from its sale to the school. Children saved pennies in snuff boxes, and at one fundraising rally, an old man who had been a slave offered his life savings of $38 "to see the children of my grandchildren have a chance."

"The way they required local participation imposed a tremendous financial burden on the people who could least afford it," says historian Mary Hoffschwelle, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University. Yet the grass-roots efforts helped organize communities and led to other improvements, such as better housing and spruced-up churches. "The people involved in planning believed that by transforming the architecture of rural schools, that architecture itself would transform the people who used those schools," Hoffschwelle says.

By today's standards, the mostly wooden Rosenwald schools were simple structures, but they were a great improvement over the ramshackle huts and lodge halls where black children already attended classes. "Many of the places in the South where the schools are now taught are as bad as stables," Booker T. Washington wrote to Rosenwald in 1912. A dozen years later, little had changed in some places. In its 1924 report on black schools in Prince George's County, the school trustees said of the Laurel facilities: "We doubt if any of the stables of the Laurel race track would be permitted for a horse if they were as run down as these two places in which teachers are forced to labor."

The Rosenwald schools, in contrast, met strict architectural guidelines. Windows faced east and west to get the most natural light and each site was to be at least two acres, with ample space for outdoor privies, playgrounds, and a plot for agricultural demonstrations. The Rosenwald Fund made the school plans available to white and black schools alike, and in many counties public school authorities used the drawings to erect new white schools, so as not to be out-done by the black school.

Even before the Supreme Court's 1954 decision striking down school segregation, Rosenwald schools began to vanish. Many were closed as better roads and the use of school buses led to larger consolidated schools. Others remained in use through the 1960s as Southern states resisted integration.

Some Rosenwald schools are still used by public school systems, such as Prince George's Ridgley School, which is a school bus depot, and Highland Park, now the Head Start center. In North Carolina's Mecklenburg County and other places, schools were purchased and remodeled as homes, sometimes by alumni with a sentimental attachment to the building. Some of the Mecklenburg schools were taken over by the churches that helped spawn them, according to historian Thomas Hanchett of Charlotte's Levine Museum of the New South. One Alabama school, located not far from Tuskegee, is used as a senior citizens nutrition and sewing center, and some of the seniors who use it were once students there.

In some communities, efforts to save and restore the remaining Rosenwald schools have faced objections, mainly from academics critical of Booker T. Washington's emphasis on vocational training and his philosophy of accommodation with whites. Like Washington, Rosenwald did not challenge segregation and he embraced Washington's belief in self-help. Yet Rosenwald also hoped the schools would promote cooperation between blacks and whites and a greater public commitment to equality.

Hanchett notes that while Rosenwald and his fellow philanthropists succeeded in raising the level of black education in the South, they failed in the larger goal of achieving equality. "Despite the marked improvements in conditions, in 1930 black students were even farther behind whites by almost every important measure than they had been in 1915," he writes in a study of Mecklenburg County schools. In North Carolina in 1930, Hanchett says, $44 was spent for every white student and $14 for blacks. "Though black schools had improved, white school boards were improving white facilities much faster."

Nonetheless, the drive to make the schools landmarks comes not so much from preservationists who want to protect relics of another era, as from local communities still grateful for the schools, no matter their flaws in the struggle for equality.

"Look at what they had before – a shanty without a floor, without desks – and the next season to go back to a state-of-the-art facility…. The impact was almost immeasurable," says Jeff Mansell, an architectural historian who researched Alabama Rosenwald schools.

The school names reflect that gratitude, Mansell says. Among Alabama's 407 Rosenwald structures, one would find the Booker T. Washington School or the Rough and Ready School, reflecting heroes of the times. But a one-room school built for $300 in Wilcox County, Alabama, says it all: the Godsend Rosenwald School.

"That reflected so much of how they felt," Mansell says. "Thank God for Julius Rosenwald."

In 1928, the Rosenwald Fund supported construction of the Highland Park School, the second school to educate black high-schoolers in Prince George's County, Maryland. Highland Park is one of the few Rosenwald buildings still used as a public-school facility. (Fisk University Library)
This portrait of Sears, Roebuck executive Julius Rosenwald, the benefactor of schools for rural African Americans in the South, was hung in schoolhouses alongside pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Booker T. Washington. (University of Chicago Library Special Collections Research Center)
The Rosenwald Fund aimed to have a school in every rural county in the South, and this 1931 map shows the location of 5,295 competed Rosenwald schools, teachers homes, and industrial shops. (University of Chicago Library Special Collections Research Center)
Julius Rosenwald took a personal interest in the schools that he helped build. In the 1920s, he visited a school in Method, North Carolina, the 4000th Rosenwald School constructed. (Jackson Davis Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia Library)
Separate and unequal: At a white school in Winchester, Virginia, in 1921, students studied in a spacious classroom with desks, chairs, and blackboards. (Jackson Davis Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia Library)
(Jackson Davis Collection, Albert and Shirley At a one-room schoolhouse for blacks in Brunswick County, Virginia, also in the early 20th century, children squeezed together on benches and teachers wrote lessons on the log walls and ceiling, The dismal state of African American schools led Julius Rosenwald to provide funds for new buildings throughout the rural South.Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia Library)
n Notasulga, Alabama, a few miles from Tuskegee, one of the earliest Rosenwald schools is still standing, but in dilapidated condition. Community members are trying to place the school, built in 1914, on the National Register of Historic Places. (Diane Granat)
(Diane Granat)
Former and current students of the Highland Park School in Prince George's County, Maryland, gather in May 2002 for the Dedication of a plaque citing the Rosenwald School as an historic landmark.
Former and current students of the Highland Park School in Prince George's County, Maryland, gather in May 2002 for the Dedication of a plaque citing the Rosenwald School as an historic landmark.