From the time she was a little girl, Rosa Jinsey Young knew she wanted to be a teacher. Even though there were no schools for black children in her community, she wanted to help “her people” learn.
A small child with frequent bouts of illness, Young was an unlikely heroine. Born in 1890, the fourth of 10 children, Young grew up in Rosebud, in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, a swath of counties cutting through the center of the state with the blackest soil and the largest old plantations. Her parents were farmers; her father also preached as a circuit rider for the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
These were inauspicious beginnings for a young African American girl who wanted to teach. With little formal education, she taught herself to read from her blue-backed speller while also milking cows and chopping and picking cotton.
She was living in a state not interested in educating its black students, with huge funding disparities. Local school boards spent almost three times as much on each white student as they did on blacks. In Alabama, they spent $37 on each white student to just $7 on black students as late as 1930.
Service Was the Heart of her Mission
Facing Jim Crow segregation, deep poverty, isolation, discrimination, and hardship, Young initiated an educational effort that led to the founding of 30 private schools for African American students in communities across Alabama from 1912-1960. The schools educated thousands of children who would have had nowhere else to learn, and raised up leaders in ministry, teaching, civil rights, and even law.
At 15, with money earned from picking cotton, Young sent herself to Payne Institute in Selma to become a teacher. Teased mercilessly for her country ways by the city’s black students, she persevered, arriving late and leaving early every term to work in the cotton fields.
True to her love of learning and hard work, she graduated at the top of her class. In her valedictorian speech, which she had to give while seated because she was so nervous, she declared service as the greatest good.
“Good service is an unfailing guide to success. There is nothing more reputable to a race or nation than Christian service,” she said. “So let us not hesitate but grasp every opportunity that will enable us to do some good for others.”
She took doing “good for others” to heart by teaching in local black schools, where it often rained so hard inside the building children had to sit with umbrellas while reciting lessons. By 1912, she had saved her own money and raised donations from black and whites – including the former governor of Alabama, B.M. Miller – to buy land, pay for lumber and workers, and build her own school: the four-room Rosebud Literary and Industrial School. In two years attendance grew from seven to 200.
“Among these poor children were bright boys and girls filled with high ambitions with marks of leadership on their brows, shining like diamonds,” Young wrote in her autobiography.
Just three years later, her dream was hit hard by a devastating insect. The boll weevil landed in Alabama cotton fields in 1914, destroying the region’s only cash crop. In a last-ditch effort to raise funds, and after asking dozens of churches and people for support, she wrote Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute for advice.
Tuskegee was unable to offer financial support, but Washington directed her to Rev. C.F. Drewes with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in St. Louis. It had a history of founding black Lutheran missions in the rural South, placing parochial schools in Louisiana in the 1880s and North Carolina in the 1890s. Young offered the Lutherans her school and its contents, including, “45 seats, 5 heaters, 1 school bell, 1 sewing machine, 1 piano, a nice collection of useful books and 150 New Testaments for our Bible Training program.”
Inspired by her request, Drewes sent Rev. Nils Bakke, a Norwegian Lutheran pastor with a heart for black ministry, to Rosebud to begin mission work. A few months later, on Palm Sunday, 1916, Young was the first confirmed Lutheran on the Alabama field, and a teacher and mission worker for Christ Lutheran Church and School in Rosebud.
Soon afterwards, two of her first students, twins Mary and Sarah McCants, went home to Sedan and opened a Sunday School in their father’s barn, carrying an old wagon seat on their heads for seating. “Rosa walked 15 miles to the old barn to dedicate their work, which became St. Andrews Lutheran Church and School,” writes Virginia Mohler, with a T-shaped building constructed of rough-cut lumber painted green that housed the school and congregation.
Their auntie, Mrs. Luella McCants, moved six miles away to Buena Vista, and urged Rosa to help start a mission there.
“I first went to Buena Vista on August 20, 1916, having been invited to establish a Lutheran mission there,” Young wrote in her book. “I rode in an oxcart with Sister Luella McCants who had moved from Sedan near Vredenburgh to Buena Vista. The following evening I spoke to a large crowd … Quite a number expressed the desire to have a mission.”
From that humble beginning, St. James Lutheran School and Church graduated Lutheran pastors and school teachers, many of whom are still serving.
Lutheran schools and churches spread throughout communities and were founded by mill workers, sharecroppers, former students, ex-slaves, teachers, carpenters, and farmers. “Church members sold eggs, sewed quilts, dug wells, chopped wood, canned figs, pressed cane syrup, ground corn, harvested cotton, and collected their coins to keep schools and churches going through tough times,” Mohler chronicles.
With an economy devastated by slavery and the Civil War coupled with the national 1929 stock market crash, poverty in Alabama was deep and widespread. Most blacks lived in simple wood homes, former slave and sharecropper cabins, without electricity or running water. They kept gardens, pigs, chickens, and cows so they could eat. Students recalled how happy they were to get boxes of clothes and shoes from donors.
Over time, 30 schools and 35 churches were founded, all staffed with Lutheran pastors and teachers reaching more than 3,000 people. Young taught at many of the schools and spent her salary to dig a well so the children would have fresh water. Rosa also helped found Alabama Lutheran Academy in Selma in 1922 to train teachers and pastors.
A Long-Lasting Legacy
As African Americans moved away from rural Alabama in search of better jobs and opportunities, Rosa’s influence spread. Many migrators established Lutheran churches and schools in their new cities of Mobile, Pensacola, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. “As the Alabama population fell, the churches and schools were consolidated,” Mohler notes. Several churches still remain open with active memberships, but with the advent of integration, all of the Alabama schools begun through Young’s efforts have closed except for one.
The exception is Trinity Lutheran Church and School in Mobile under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Ulmer Marshall. Marshall was one of the 12 pastors who came out of St. James Lutheran Church and School in Buena Vista.
In fact, Young was his religion teacher when he was an eighth grader at Alabama Lutheran Academy in Selma. A tough teacher, Young did not abide distractions – a lesson he learned firsthand the day he rolled a pencil on his desk.
“Everything was focused on learning, and deepening your life with Christ,” he said. Every young man was expected to be a pastor.
The inner-city neighborhood Marshall serves faces many challenges common to urban life with poverty, single parent families, and violence. But that is one reason Marshall has stubbornly kept the school going, even in hard years, because he knows the importance of a Christ-centered education.
The school is one of the church’s strongest ministries, bringing thousands of people through its doors. Today 130 students are enrolled in the school and daycare, with another 50 in after-school tutoring and summer enrichment programs.
“Rosa Young was such a humble woman, with a devout spirit to bring light of the gospel to those in spiritual darkness,” said Marshall’s wife, Gwen Marshall. “I’m amazed at how passionately she persevered, despite great odds against her. Because of her faithfulness to the gospel, she brought about a revolution in black ministry through Christian education for our children (and future pastors). We need more Rosa Youngs today.”
As Young wrote, “I had an ambition to work for the Lord and my race. I had great enthusiasm to serve my people; my heart was overwhelmed with compassion for them. This compassion for my people has remained with me throughout life.”