Living Legacy

Between 1912 and 1932, a collaboration between a Black educator and a Jewish businessman produced 5,000 school buildings in which more than 600,000 African American children in the South were educated.

In 2021, I began my MFA studies at Duke University in an effort to reconnect with my Southern roots and explore Jewish legacies in the region. As I investigated topics for my documentary thesis film, I discovered that one of the most vital and least known African American and Jewish relationships was formed before the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1911, the meeting of Julius Rosenwald, the Jewish philanthropist who was then the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, and Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute who was born into slavery, sparked an unprecedented partnership that would transform Black education in the South. Together, these two men created an extraordinary program that resulted in the building of over 5,000 rural schoolhouses for Black children between 1912 and 1932. And during those years, more than 600,000 African American children were educated in those schools.

Remnants of these historic and underappreciated buildings (also known as Rosenwald Schools) can be found scattered across the South. Today, only about 500 of the original schools still stand. Some were abandoned, left to deteriorate. Others are gone completely, replaced by new buildings. But a special few are in impeccable condition, maintained by community members who saw the importance of preserving history. One of those special schools, the Russell School, is the subject of my film, Living Legacy.

The Russell School is the last remaining Rosenwald School in Durham County, North Carolina. Lovingly maintained by community members and descendants of alumni of the school, this schoolhouse is in nearly flawless condition. After learning more about the school and spending time with members of the community, documenting the preservation effort felt imperative. The alumni of the school are magnificent storytellers. Their memories come alive when they step inside this schoolhouse and revisit their childhoods.

The alumni of the school are magnificent storytellers. Their memories come alive when they step inside this schoolhouse and revisit their childhoods.

Education has always been a shared value in my family. Both my grandmothers were teachers, each instilling in me the importance of learning as an essential foundation for life. Having lost two of my grandparents last year, I related so deeply to the Russell School community’s desire to carry on the work of their ancestors by continuing to preserve the history of the school for future generations. Our shared interest in documentation laid the foundation for my partnership with the Russell School community. There is nothing like being inside a nearly one hundred-year-old building that holds so much intangible history and emotion, but I attempted to bring pieces of the Russell School back to life through imagination and memory in this film.


About the author

Maddie Stambler is a documentary director and producer. She graduated from Duke University with a BA in Storytelling, an MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts, and a Certificate in College Teaching. Maddie's 2021 directorial debut, Who Fights For You?, premiered at the Cleveland International Film Festival and was nominated for Best Short Documentary at the BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta, Georgia. The film is about her childhood best friend who is an African American pastor with cerebral palsy. Her 2023 MFA thesis film, Living Legacy, tells the story of the Historic Russell School, the last remaining Rosenwald School in Durham County, North Carolina. Most recently, Maddie co-directed The Unknown Metal Box. The film is a stranger-than-fiction mystery exploring photography, memory, and loss.

1 thought on “Living Legacy”

  1. I loved this beautifully crafted film. I had not heard of the Rosenwald Schools until today. I knew about Booker T. Washington and his efforts to educate black children (people) but did not know he had such significant help. In fact, I thought Tuskegee Institute was his only legacy. Talk about the miseducation of the negro. I am shamed. The thousands of children who attended these schools are his legacy as well. And of course, Mr. Rosenwald’s legacy. Maddie, thank you for schooling me on all of this, and for caring. The next time I’m in Durham I will visit the Russell School. Shalom

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