Motivated…to establish a private school in her own hometown…[Rosa] began a fundraising campaign. In her autobiography, she lists several reasons for her decision. In the Black communities she visited, she had seen much ignorance and superstition, a disregard for common morals, and poor living conditions.
At the turn of the twentieth century, many civil rights advocates fought to create better communities and lives for Black Americans. They did it mostly through politics, essays, and discussions. Rosa Young—a name still largely unknown—did it through education, the gospel, and prayer.
A Bright Child
Rosa Young was born on May 14, 1890 in Rosebud, a small rural community in Wilcox County, Alabama, one of the poorest in the nation. She was the fourth of ten children. Her father, Grant Young, was an Episcopal minister. From an early age, she had a great desire to learn. Her first teacher was her uncle Mitchell, who had studied at Tuskegee Institute and was holding evening classes for a few children, since public schools for Black children were still lacking. When Rosa finally managed to go to a public school, she was placed in the fifth grade.
For a long time, her only book was the Bible. But her family didn’t take her to church until she was ten, and took her sparingly after that, probably because of her emotional and rather confused reaction. Impressed by people who claimed they had visions and heard voices, she was waiting for these supernatural signs, until her grandmother reassured her, and encouraged her to go back to church and Sunday School regularly.
Rosa studied and worked in the cotton fields at the same time. By the time she ended sixth grade (the highest grade offered at the school), she had raised enough money to pay for books, clothes, and train fare to Payne University, a Methodist Episcopal School in Selma, Alabama, 54 miles away from home. Aware of her talents, her parents arranged for her to attend the school and found her accommodations through a friend.
A Leading Student
Being the only student from the country, she was initially mocked by city students, and spent the first months crying. But she eventually made friends. For two years, she left school early in summer and returned late in order to work in the cotton fields and raise funds for her tuition. Later, she spent her summers tutoring other students. In spite of this workload, during her six years at the school she won several scholastic awards and became editor of the school newspaper.
Chosen as valedictorian of her graduating class of 1909, she exhorted her fellow students to leave the university “in the spirit of service, with a determination to do all in our power to uplift humanity.”
“People are looking to us for strength and help. They need our best efforts, our bravest words, our noblest deeds, our tenderest love, and our most helpful sympathy. This is a needy world; outstretched hands may be seen by the thousands asking for aid. It is our duty to relieve human wants. Let us place our standard high, but be willing to do the lowest task, the most distasteful labor, be ever helpful and generous, and be ready to lend a helping hand. … There is nothing more reputable to a race or nation than Christian service. So let us not hesitate, but grasp every opportunity that will enable us to do some good for others. As teachers, teach the people; as merchants, supply their needs; as doctors, administer to their wants; and as preachers, proclaim the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Teacher and Fundraiser
These were not empty words. After receiving her teaching credentials, Young went on to teach from school to school (due to a state law, schools could only stay open if they had enough teachers). This experience motivated her to establish a private school in her own hometown, and began a fundraising campaign.