In 1912, Booker T. Washington, the founding principal of the Tuskegee Institute who was born into slavery, and Julius Rosenwald, an American businessman and philanthropist who was the son of Jewish immigrants, launched a program to build public schools for African American children across the segregated South.
Of the original Rosenwald schools built between 1917 and 1937, only about 500 survive. Feiler drove more than 25,000 miles to gather interviews with dozens of former students, teachers, preservationists and community leaders. His book pays photographic tribute to the schools in 85 duotone images.
An exhibition of his work, A Better Life for Their Children, will debut next month at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights (May 22–December 31). Feiler recently talked to ArtsATL about his approach to visual storytelling, the impetus for researching and writing the book, and the reader response that left him speechless.
ArtsATL: Your portrait of Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, is featured in your book. What is her connection to the Rosenwald schools?
Andrew Feiler: Early in my research I came across the story of Robert Robinson Taylor, the first accredited African American architect. Taylor was hired by Booker T. Washington to be a professor and staff architect at Tuskegee Institute, and he led the team that designed the first Rosenwald schools. He’s an important figure in the Rosenwald schools narrative, but how do you tell his story visually? Well, in reading his story I learned that Valerie Jarrett was Taylor’s great-granddaughter. I reached out to her and explained that I wanted to do her portrait as a means of sharing the story of her ancestor. She instantly agreed, but I still needed a way to root Taylor in the photograph. For that I used the postage stamp that had honored him a few years earlier. The portrait was shot in Jarrett’s home in Washington, D.C.
ArtsATL: A core design principle of the schools was that they be constructed from humble materials and have a modest appearance. Apart from budgetary considerations, why was this a priority?
Feiler: Such humility was in part to control costs and in part to avoid provoking a backlash, specifically arson, from the White citizenry. But despite being offered architectural plans and design guidelines, Black communities often adjusted designs in an expression of agency. Architectural niceties like cupolas were specifically discouraged, but among the 105 schools I visited three had cupolas. Another example of community agency and pride can be seen at the Lincoln School in Bledsoe County, Tennessee. There, all the walls and ceilings are covered in beautifully ornate pressed tin.
ArtsATL: What came as the biggest surprise to you while researching the history of segregated schools in the South?
Feiler: Despite the magnitude of the program’s imprint on history, I first heard of Rosenwald schools in early 2015 at lunch with Jeanne Cyriaque, a preservationist who had dedicated her career to saving these historic structures. The story shocked me. How could I have never heard of Rosenwald schools? I am a fifth-generation Jewish Georgian, and I have spent my life working on progressive civic causes. The pillars of this story — Jewish, Southern, progressive, activist — these are the pillars of my life.
That afternoon I sat at my desk in Atlanta and Googled “Rosenwald schools.” I quickly found there were a few books on the topic but there was no comprehensive photographic account. I set out to create exactly that.
ArtsATL: What has the reader response been so far?
Feiler: A project like this is a closely held enterprise. Most of those 25,000 miles were driven solo. The hours I spent online researching and finding surviving schools and people associated with them, this too was mostly solo. There was a select group of thought partners who shared the journey, especially my wife, Laura Adams, but it was a small group.
And then you bring a book into the world. And you get emails like this, from a photographer in Michigan that I have never met, that both astound and humble: “Truly this may be the best example of documentary work and storytelling combined I have ever seen. You have captured the honor, dignity, strength and maybe even aspirations of a marginalized and disadvantaged group completely humanizing their situation in a most compelling fashion.”
The Atlanta History hosted Andrew Feiler’s conversation with former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin about his book on April 1. Access the virtual event HERE.
April book picks
(Each month, we feature new reading suggestions from book lovers across Atlanta’s arts and culture landscape.)
With a father who serves as treasurer for a library friends group and a mother who worked in a middle-school library, my love of reading is inevitable.
Throughout the pandemic, I have rediscovered this love, finally dipping my toes into nonfiction but never straying too far from my go-to: thrillers with countless twists and turns.
I religiously watch Amber Ruffin’s late-night show and recurring segments on Late Night With Seth Meyers so I jumped at the chance to read You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey (Grand Central Publishing, 240 pages), a book she co-authored with her sister, Lacey Lamar. This collection of stories depicts Lamar’s daily interactions with racism. I was struck by the book’s effective and disarming humor, making readers laugh while also forcing them to reflect on their past behaviors and acknowledge their own biases. Some stories were incredible, others made me angry, but they all spoke to the truth of being Black in America. Witty, brilliant and relevant — may Ruffin’s first book not be her last.
Pretty Little Wife (William Morrow, 416 pages) by Darby Kane definitely delivered on the twists and turns. Kane takes the classic “woman in peril” trope and flips it on its head. We know the protagonist, Lila, a quintessential trophy wife, was the last person to see her husband’s dead body, but when his body disappears without a trace, Lila is left with more questions than answers. In the pandemic, I’ve craved opportunities to curl up with a book and escape into someone else’s reality, even if it belongs to a troubled anti-hero. Suspenseful with complex female characters, Pretty Little Wife provided the perfect escape.
— Rebecca Pogue leads the elementary-school programs at the Alliance Theatre.
Tara is probably one of the strongest characters you’ll find in Southern fiction. No, this isn’t a reference to Gone With the Wind, though the author of Purple Lotus (She Writes Press, 312 pages), Veena Rao, claims to be a huge fan. This is Tara, who comes from coastal Mangalore but who has immigrated all the way to sweet home Atlanta. Tara’s life in her adopted city isn’t easy. She has a husband born and brought up in the USA who can’t relate to her at all, who abuses her and gets away with it, too. It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of turns, but Purple Lotus is all about Tara getting away from the patterns of abuse that trap her into a failing marriage. She makes more friends from people outside of her community, she learns to confront her traditions and her customs. Most importantly of all, Tara learns to speak for herself.
Prepare to be charmed, prepare to be challenged and prepare to be swept away into a very particular world. Purple Lotus is the Atlanta novel you need to be reading this year. It’s one of the first in a line of books that centers the American South experience on the Indian one, and does so on very particular terms.
— Kiran Bhat is a global citizen formed in Jonesboro to parents from Dakshin Kannada in India. An avid world-traveler, he has penned books in five languages.
Telling the history of barbecue without prominently featuring African Americans would be as ridiculous as telling the story of jazz without Louis Armstrong. But that’s exactly what Adrian Miller, a culinary historian in Denver, noticed a few years ago. The media attention was going to White folks — chefs, cookbook authors, competition winners — and relatively little to Blacks. Miller came to think of it as the whitewashing of barbecue, and he set out remedy the situation with a book: Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue (University of North Carolina Press, 328 pages).
Miller, who wrote the James Beard Award-winning Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time (University of North Carolina Press, 333 pages), has crafted an entertaining and informative narrative with recipes. He shines a light on Black barbecue pioneers like Henry Perry, the father of Kansas City barbecue; Marie Jean, an early barbecue entrepreneur in Arkansas; and “Doc” Hamilton, a barbecue restaurateur and notorious gambler in Seattle.
Barbecue as we know it originated as a Native American cooking technique and was influenced by ethnic groups from five continents. But most of the early cooks in Colonial and antebellum times were enslaved African Americans, and they had a decisive hand in creating the food we love. I plowed some of this territory in my 2019 book, Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America, and know how hard it is to document a vernacular tradition with little institutional history. Miller read thousands of newspaper articles and narratives of the formerly enslaved, and came up with a fair number of stories I’ve never encountered.
Thomas Drennon, for instance, an Atlanta barbecuer who testified before Congress about a scary middle-of-the-night visit he received from the Ku Klux Klan in 1871. They wanted to know whether it was true that he was planning to cook a barbecue for a Black political group. Drennon placated the night riders by saying he always voted a “White ticket.” What did he mean by that? The piece of paper he used to vote was white.
Barbecue, Miller reminds us, is, like everything else in America, wrapped up in politics and race.
—Jim Auchmutey comes from a long line of pitmasters and Brunswick stew makers in Georgia. He was an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter for almost 30 years and wrote The Class of ’65: A Student, a Divided Town and the Long Road to Forgiveness.
I’m a lawyer and mother who reads every second of down time, and next up on my bedside table is Surviving the White Gaze (Simon & Schuster, 320 pages) by Rebecca Carroll. I usually stick to mysteries, true crime and novels, but I saw Rebecca’s interview on The Daily Show, and Trevor Noah said it was one of the best memoirs he’s ever read. I loved Born a Crime (Doubleday Canada, 289 pages), so I trust his judgment. Plus, I thought their conversation about race in America felt urgent and refreshing.
— Laura Yellig is a public defender and book lover who’s happiest by water with a book in her hand.
The eyes are the doorway to the soul, we look people in the eye to see the beautiful differences and aliveness between us. Joanna Ho’s Eyes That Kiss in the Corners teaches children about difference in the most lyrical way. The sunny, loving illustrations of Dung Ho give children a way to enter the world of Chinese Americans, their families and deep rich history.
It’s a sweet world of Mama, Amah and Mei-Mei. Painted flowers, butterflies, nature and bedrooms with toys are juxtaposed against the landscapes of China. Mythical figures in lotus flowers, dragons with peacocks whose feathers have “eyes.” This book shapes a conversion of family and diversity in the most delightful way, by eyes that kiss in the corners.
— Judy Walkeris an illustrator, book designer and fine art painter. Her paintings and photography will be featured in the soon-to-be released memoir Chasing the Blues by musician, record producer and songwriter Dennis Walker.