Southern states, including North Carolina, largely ignored their responsibility to provide an education for rural Black children in the early 20th century. But then a plan hatched by a famous black educator and a Jewish philanthropist broke Jim Crow’s grip on funding for black schools. The resulting schools helped change the South and the nation, one student at a time.

Tom Lassiter produced and wrote “Unlocking the Doors of Opportunity / The Rosenwald Schools of North Carolina.” He and Jere Snyder, his longtime videography partner, created Longleaf Productions, a non-profit, in 2015 to pursue this topic.

Guilford County was home to about 10 Rosenwald Schools, including Persimmon Grove, Terra Cotta, and Florence. Nearly 5,000 Rosenwald Schools were built in 15 Southern states, from Maryland to Texas. North Carolinians built nearly 800 schools, the most of any state. The building program concluded in 1932.

Famous African Americans who began their education in Rosenwald Schools include North Carolina native Nina Simone, the late Maya Angelou, the late Congressman John Lewis, and Washington Post journalist Eugene Robinson.

The 30-minute North Carolina documentary is scheduled to be air on PBS-NC several times. The first broadcast will be at 10 p.m. February 23.

Longleaf Productions has completed a companion film about the history of Rosenwald Schools in South Carolina. A film looking at the story of Rosenwald Schools in Virginia is in the planning stages.