Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Negro” School: A Bundle of Contradictions?

An analysis of Frank Lloyd Wright’s little-known design for the Rosenwald School elucidates his views on both education and race.

Wright's unbuilt Rosenwald School
An obscure item in the Wright catalog, the 1928 design for the Rosenwald School in Hampton Virginia, articulates both the architect’s progressive pedagogical ideas and cultural biases. 

Courtesy the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York); © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved.

“School should be a happy place—even for the negro [sic],” wrote Frank Lloyd Wright to his friend and longtime patron Darwin D. Martin in July 1928. Along with the letter, Wright sent Martin presentation drawings for the Rosenwald School, a practice teaching school for African-American students in coastal Virginia. The school was never built, and only a few drawings remain. The Rosenwald School nonetheless illuminates Wright’s vision of education that nurtured individualism and strengthened democratic solidarity, linking him to leading social and educational reformers, while also advancing his experimentation with affordable construction techniques.

Wright designed his practice school for the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which was founded by white abolitionists from the American Missionary Association after the Civil War. Hampton’s curriculum offered instruction in teaching and industrial trades through the 11th grade. The school became famous for the “Hampton Ideal,” an educational and disciplinary model that endeavored to lift up black students from illiteracy and poverty. By disciplining “the head, heart and hands”—the Hampton mantra—the school graduated farmers, domestics, bricklayers, and teachers. (Because Hampton’s mission of “racial uplift” posited that social equality was something African Americans must work to achieve, it was a cause that some believed validated black inferiority and Jim Crow segregation.)

In 1881, nearly 50 years before Wright’s Rosenwald design, Hampton’s most distinguished graduate, Booker T. Washington, had become the head of a black-led teacher training school in rural Alabama—the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers, which counted Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller as patrons. In Alabama’s Black Belt, named for its dark, fertile soil and for its concentration of poor black sharecroppers, Washington wanted to Tuskegee’s success by starting a program to help black communities build schools. Washington approached his trustee, Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago-based Jewish philanthropist, to donate funds (while asking that local black communities raise the rest). Rosenwald, who was president of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. mail-order business, enthusiastically agreed and suggested adopting Sears’s prefabrication methods used for its catalog houses.

Rosenwald School network
A map illustrating the extensive network of schools built through the Rosenwald Fund program

To build momentum for its school-building program, Tuskegee published The Negro Rural School and Its Relation to the Community (1915) which featured different designs, from a single-teacher school up to a ten-teacher school, that could be affordably erected using basic carpentry skills. By 1928 the fund had increased financial allowances and developed a new group of plans to erect more permanent brick-and-concrete schools. To secure Rosenwald Fund support, Hampton Institute proposed its practice school would follow the classroom plans and design standards for a ten-teacher school built from brick, identified as the “10A” plan.

The Rosenwald Fund’s effort to efficiently build affordable schools on a national scale, a strategy that by July 1928 had erected more than 4,300 schools, piqued Wright’s own interest in designing for everyday Americans. One goal of building a Rosenwald School at Hampton was to serve as a model for those planning to erect similar low-cost masonry schools. This resonated with Wright: Throughout his career, he had experimented with handcraft methods adapted to modern production techniques, such as his ongoing research to produce on-site masonry “textile blocks” that, when stacked, created tapestry-like wall patterns.

A construction photo of the Tonkens House, which was built according to Wright’s Usonian Automatic “system.” For the Rosenwald School Wright employed a construction method that similarly sought to reduce skilled labor.

Courtesy the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York); © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved.

But instead of building with textile-block units, or with the brick the Rosenwald 10A plan stipulated, Wright’s final design for the exterior wall construction proposed fieldstone on concrete. The technique was adapted from architect Ernest Flagg, a Beaux-Arts trained New York architect. Like Wright, Flagg was interested in inexpensive, non-labor-intensive methods of construction to build modest cottage houses. Flagg developed a construction technique called “mosaic rubble” that minimized the use of formwork and scaffolding, which Wright found to be efficient and affordable.

Wright retained most of the original Rosenwald 10A plan, but in a brilliant move that transformed the character of the entire scheme, he pushed the auditorium from the front to the rear of the building. The new location of the auditorium enclosed a courtyard patio with a pool to encourage play and exercise. These new amenities increased the cost, but Wright argued it would “be worth it—Physical Culture should be 3/5 of ‘Education.’” A three-bay entrance welcomed visitors to the large assembly hall that could be arranged for group exercise, public assembly, or performances. Fellowship in the hall would strengthen communal ties within the school and among Hampton’s students and the local townspeople.

Intended to have been built from fieldstone, concrete, shingles, and cypress boards stained bright colors and integrated into Virginia’s flat coastal plains, Wright’s inventive proposal merged building, landscape, learning, and physical fitness. It had made architecture “a factor in education!” He based his work on the principles of organic architecture, which carried a racial dimension. As Wright noted on a photocopy of one of the drawings, the school had been “an attempt to make a school building a little warmer in color and form and nearer to the negro [sic] heart.”

Wright’s organic sensibilities created an authentic “colorful vivacious thing” so that “the Darkies would have something that belonged to them. Something exterior of their own lively interior color and charm.” Wright believed he had captured the spirit of African-American culture in his modern school design, and yet old stereotypes of racial difference persisted.

Characterizing African Americans as “Darkies,” a demeaning minstrel stereotype, reveals the paradoxes and tensions in Wright’s unrealized Rosenwald School design. On one hand, Wright’s architecture of the “negro spirit” represented, in the same manner as the Hampton Ideal, black culture as primitive. This aligned with whites who viewed black Americans as a docile, childlike people who find happiness in rudimentary artistic creations, which masked the devastating oppression wrought by white racism. On the other hand, however, Wright’s Rosenwald School, embodied the progressive ethos of a liberal education, one that produced ethical individuals and cultivated better citizens. Like forward-thinking educators of the day, Wright believed his model of modern architecture created for his well-to-do white clients could be adapted to serve black students.

This text was adapted from an essay in Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive, which accompanies the Museum of Modern Art’s latest Wright exhibition.

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