Books: ‘You Need a Schoolhouse’

You Need a Schoolhouse bookI’m heading up to Capitol Hill this evening for a presentation by Stephanie Deutsch, who’s launching her book on the so-called Rosenwald schools.

The book, You Need a Schoolhouse, describes the unlikely partnership between educator and black leader Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck.

The two men collaborated in efforts that led to the building of some 5,000 schoolhouses for African-American children across the South over a 20-year period, from 1912 to 1932.

It’s always interesting to learn about how people came to the subjects they write about. Stephanie says her book grew initially from a family connection: her husband is a great-grandson of Julius Rosenwald.

Once she discovered his connection with Booker T. Washington and the historic importance of their joint legacy, she had her story. She’s traveled widely visiting Rosenwald schools and interviewing alumni for the book. One thing it highlights is the passion for education that brought communities together almost a hundred years ago to create Rosenwald schools.

I first met Stephanie in the Women’s History Discussion Group at the Library of Congress, and we cross paths occasionally at meetings of the Washington Biography Group. From the time I first heard about the subject of her book I knew it’s one I’d have to read — one of those essential books that fill in our historical understanding of overlooked but hugely important events in U.S. history.

Of added interest: Her talk is at a newly renovated historic building on Capitol Hill, the Old Naval Hospital, which dates from just after the Civil War. Today it’s the Hill Center.

I love discovering new pockets of D.C. history. Over the past decade I’ve learned a great deal about the city’s history in the course of freelance work updating the last three editions of the guidebook National Geographic Traveler: Washington, D.C.

Old Naval Hospital

Old Naval Hospital on Capitol Hill, now the Hill Center (Source: Friends of Old Naval Hospital)

That knowledge has grown further during my research for a book on Eliza Scidmore. I’ve read in particular a lot about Washington during and after the Civil War, when Eliza grew up here. During the war, her mother did volunteer work ministering to soldiers in military hospitals.

The Old Naval Hospital was originally built to care for sick and injured seaman serving on the Potomac and its tributaries. Over the years it’s been used as a hospital, a medical training facility, an old soldier’s home and offices for D.C. social services programs.

After years of neglect it’s just undergone a major restoration, thanks to a huge community campaign. As the Hill Center, it will be used for education and arts programs.

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