The Shelbyville Central High School class reunion of 1967 presented a check donation to the Rosenwald Community Center to help the nonprofit continue improvements to the building, located at 516 Tillman St.
Jimmy Simmons and Doug Wells presented the check Thursday afternoon. When asked why, Simmons said many in Rosenwald are classmates he knows; he hopes to encourage other classes from that era to do the same and donate.
“I know these people,” he said. “This is going to be a nice community center.”
The idea for the Rosenwald Community Center began with Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish-German immigrant and president of Sears Roebuck, who teamed up with Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute over 100 years ago.
They met at a fundraiser in 1911 and discovered they had similar goals in providing such educational opportunities, according to Rosenwald member Janet Smith. By 1912, Rosenwald gave a grant to Washington to build six schools.
Many black communities participated in the Julius Rosenwald Fund’s matching grant program as one strategy to provide better education for their children, according to the Tennessee State Museum.
Eventually, they built nearly 5,000 schools and vocational workshops across 15 southern states.
According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, by 1928, a third of the South’s rural black school children and teachers were served by Rosenwald Schools.
“We were not able to get a form of education like others,” said Shelbyville Rosenwald founding member Mary Brame at a meeting earlier this summer.
There were, at one time, 27 black schools in Bedford (mostly one-room schools with one teacher).
The Bedford County Training School, 610 Elm St., was originally known as the McAdams School (named for the principal John McAdams) and served Shelbyville as the first public high school for African Americans.
After a joint venture between the city and county in 1935, the name was changed to “training school,” the term then commonly used to denote black schools. It eventually became Harris High in 1960.
White schools, like Shelbyville Central High School, eventually desegregated in the late 1960s.
In July 1936, many in Shelbyville’s African American community organized clubs and fund raisers to raise some $1700 (some $36,000 in today’s money) to purchase two adjoining plots to build another school.
One of the lots was purchased from W.H. Gosling, a prominent black businessman in Shelbyville, and another from Johnson Thompson. The building was eventually built in 1946 and for pre-school, kindergarten, Head Start, and a community center.
Sheila Batts remembers going to kindergarten in the building. She said Brame’s mother was one of her teachers along with Mrs. Christine Smith. “I remember them coming out of that kitchen serving us lunch...They had boys on one side and girls on the other. They did an awesome job instructing all the children they had.”
“This is one of the first buildings that I know that dealt with educating our young people and it also served the community,” said Brame.
“They got together and built this...for the people to be a Rosenwald Community Center,” added member James Claybourne.
There was always plenty to do — fish fries, basketball games, while many of the older kids would play ping pong or horseshoes or tennis.
“We’re still digging and trying to get more history...Other people that used to come to school here, we would like to reach out to them to come share their story, pictures—because we do want to get it registered in the National Historical Society,” Smith added.
“All this is bigger than any one individual. It’s for the people — it’s for all the people,” said member David Wells.