Work in progress of The Rosenwald Schools screens in Riverside at Temple Beth El

Posted April 23rd, 2012 by

On April 15th, Aviva Kempner screened a work in progress version of her new film, The Rosenwald Schools, to an appreciative audience at Temple Beth El on Central Avenue in Riverside, California. The Rosenwald Schools was accompanied by two more of Ms. Kempner’s films, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. After the screenings, Ms. Kempner held a Q&A with the audience.

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner with Rabbi Suzanne Singer of Temple Beth El

Check back to this blog for updates on future screenings. To contact Aviva Kempner about speaking engagements, please email

Howard University hosts conference in honor of late Rosenwald Fellow, Dr. David Blackwell

Posted April 23rd, 2012 by

Last week, on April 19th and 20th, Howard University presented the Blackwell Memorial Conference, two years after Dr. David Blackwell passed away at the age of 91. Dr. Blackwell taught at both Howard and UC Berkeley, but before receiving these prestigious appointments he received some important assistance from the Rosenwald Fund. The New York Times recalled in his obituary that, in 1941, “[after] being awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship, established by the clothing magnate Julius Rosenwald to aid black scholars, he attended the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.” This was an important post-doctoral appointment for the young scholar, and his work was “groundbreaking” in spite of the racial discrimination he faced.

David Blackwell in 1967
Photo Credit: Konrad Jacobs, Mathematisches Forschungsinstitut Oberwolfach gGmbH

Most of the papers in the conference were academic, discussing his many contributions to the fields of statistics and mathematics. However, several of the papers are more personal, including remembrances of his style as a teacher, his transformational and inspirational effect on Howard University and thoughts on how to increase educational access in the future for growing minority groups.

Blackwell is remembered by another conference as well. Since 2000, a biannual event called The Blackwell-Tapia Conference has been held at various mathematical science institutes around North America. In addition to providing a meeting place for researchers, the event is accompanied by the awarding of the Blackwell-Tapia prize, which goes to a mathematical scientist who has significantly contributed to his field and also served as a role model for aspiring minority students in the mathematical sciences. This year’s event will be held in November, 2012 at Brown University.

Screening and fundraiser for Rosenwald Schools work in progress held in D.C.

Posted April 23rd, 2012 by

Aviva Kempner with David Stern, (far left) attorney, philanthropist, social activist and great-grandson of Julius Rosenwald

On Sunday, (April 22nd) Karen Lash and Martha Ertman generously hosted a screening in their Northwest Washington D.C. home of the work in progress version of Aviva Kempner’s new film, The Rosenwald Schools.

The screening was followed by a lively discussion among the intimate audience. As it has at other screenings, the film provoked a conversation about philanthropy and early 20th century social progressivism among both those who remember the Rosenwald schools and those who were learning about it for the first time.

Aviva Kempner and Martha Ertman address the audience

Check back to this blog for information on future screenings. If you are able to help to finish this film by hosting your own fundraiser, you will receive credit in the final film. Please contact if you are interested.

Riverside's monument to Booker T. Washington outside the Mission Inn

Posted April 19th, 2012 by

Photo of the Mission Inn taken around the time of Booker T. Washington’s Visit
Photo Credit: Detroit Publishing Company, Library of Congress

After showing two of her films and a work in progress version of her new documentary The Rosenwald Schools at a nearby venue, Ms. Aviva Kempner walked over to the historic Mission Inn in downtown Riverside, California. There was a moment of serendipity in this stroll when she came upon a bust of the great African-American educator, speaker and writer Booker T. Washington, whose partnership with Julius Rosenwald figures prominently in her new film. The bust, located near the main entrance of the hotel, commemorates Washington’s 1914 visit to Riverside at the invitation of the Inn’s proprietor, Frank Miller.

A 1922 photo of Frank Miller, owner of the Mission Inn

M. Bernard Edmonds created the monument, which was funded by a community drive in Riverside. The Black Voice News reported on the unveiling in 2004, an event that several of Washington’s descendents attended. The bronze bust honors Washington and also represents the tradition of abolitionism in Riverside. The Mission Inn is a landmark of Riverside and, in addition to Washington, has hosted more than a few presidents, scores of political and social luminaries and many celebrities.

Photo of the Booker T. Washington bust, taken in 2012

The plaque beneath the bust contains a quote from Washington: “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”

By Michael Rose

Rosenwald Fellow Thomas Sancton, white Southerner and early proponent of civil rights for African-Americans, dies in New Orleans

Posted April 19th, 2012 by

Thomas Sancton Sr., an outspokenly liberal editorialist and novelist, died on April 7th in at the age of 97. He was remembered by The Times-Picayune, one of his erstwhile employers, as a controversial but pioneering journalist.

Sancton had already been published by numerous newspapers and magazines and served as editor for The New Republic when he was awarded the first of his three Rosenwald Fellowships in 1943. The 1940s would prove his most prolific and notorious years as a writer, a time in which he was very visible in both the black and white press for voicing his progressive views on civil rights for blacks.

In a time when racism was commonly considered a natural, inherent reaction to racial difference, Sancton took the historical view that economic conditions had caused current racial tension. Instead of joining the condemnation of the white working class as the perpetrators of racial violence, he criticized the landowners and businessmen of the South who benefited monetarily from continued economic inequality. “Sancton regularly blamed, by name, the southern aristocracy of large scale growers, industrialists, and elected officials for steadily fomenting and exploiting racial hatred to control whites,” wrote Lawrence Jackson in a 2007 article in the Southern Literary Journal.

Furthermore, according to Jackson, “Sancton resisted the mirage that southern elites of good will would transform centuries of injustice.” Sancton often turned his criticism on fellow white liberals who, in a misguided attempt to spare blacks any defeat in their battle for civil rights, found themselves arguing for the inevitability of Jim Crow segregation. In The New Republic, Sancton criticized the “pale, dishwater liberalism” of writers like Virginius Dabney, Mark Ethridge and John Temple Graves who called for slow, gradual integration rather than radical and immediate self-realization by blacks themselves. Sancton advised blacks to take action on their own behalf as soon as possible, arguing realistically that “the Negro, in the long run, is the Negro’s most trustworthy friend, and I believe he will never win any benefit he does not win by his own ability, independence, courage, and political organization.”

Sancton’s writing is strikingly reflective about the place of white liberalism in civil rights for blacks, recognizing its limited role as a mouthpiece for progressive ideas already familiar to blacks, and worse, false optimism or its flip side, well-intentioned but misguided temperance. Sancton’s nuanced work must have been held in high esteem by the Rosenwald Fund’s board, as he was given three fellowships for creative writing in 1943, 1945 and 1947. More than one grant renewal by the Fund was rare, but Sancton’s progressive writing merited its continued support.

By Michael Rose

Ford Foundation followed Rosenwald Fund in its support of the arts

Posted April 19th, 2012 by

In the Arts section of April 9th’s New York Times, Sam Roberts writes about the little-known but influential philanthropoid, W. McNeil Lowry of the Ford Foundation. In 1959, Lowry allocated funds from the foundation to the author James Baldwin, who was struggling to complete his now-famous novel Another Country. Personal letters from Baldwin along with other documents from the Ford Foundation can now be viewed at the Rockefeller Archive Center. They tell the important story of a foundation that was committed to funding the arts in a time before such federal programs as the National Endowment for the Arts took up the cause.

Lowry was hired by the Ford Foundation in the wake of a major reorientation of the foundation’s goals. In The Ford Foundation: The Men and the Millions, Dwight MacDonald describes this shakeup as being precipitated by an influential article in a 1949 issue of Harper’s written by the head of the recently-dissolved Rosenwald Fund, Edwin R. Embree. The article, “Timid Billions: Are the foundations doing their job?” called on the large philanthropic foundations of the country to move away from conventional and conservative giving into the kind of risky, creative grants that had been provided by the Rosenwald Fund. At the time, endowments like the Rockefeller Foundation directed the vast majority of their grants to medicine and education, causes which Embree claimed were being increasingly funded by government and private donations. Embree argued that the role of the foundation should be more radical charity, because “social pioneering […] is the essential business of foundations” and foundations are “especially fitted to be the creative minority to spur society on” (qtd. in Alfred Perkins, Edwin Rogers Embree).

Edwin Rogers Embree

Embree’s “Timid Billions” greatly influenced the direction the Ford Foundation would take in the following years. In 1950, three years after Henry Ford’s death, the board of the foundation commissioned a “study report” to figure out the best path forward for the foundation. This report followed Embree’s prescriptions nearly completely, recommending “no spending on medicine, health, welfare agencies, or the natural (that is, physical) sciences,” (MacDonald, 159) causes which had made up the majority of the foundation’s budget up to that point. Instead, the foundation began putting money into what would become the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and, in the tradition of Embree and the Rosenwald Fund, individual grants to worthy artists like Baldwin who needed financial support.

The Times article also explains how the newly opened archives of the Ford Foundation may prove a valuable resource to art historians. For example, a letter from Baldwin describes a novel he hoped to publish that would have taken place in a Southern state and depicted the immediate reactions of slaves and slave-owners to emancipation. Likewise, the archives of the Rosenwald Fund, which gave similar grants to individuals, provide insight into the working process of many well-known artists, educators and scholars. Works completed under Rosenwald grants along with essays about the Rosenwald Fellowships can be found in A Force For Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a book-length study edited by Daniel Schulman.

By Michael Rose

Recently deceased cultural figures had Rosenwald connections

Posted April 4th, 2012 by

Elizabeth Catlett

Elizabeth Catlett, painter, sculptor and former Rosenwald fellow, passed away Monday in her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Catlett was born in Washington, D.C. in 1915 but moved around a lot as a student and artist, spending time at black universities such as Howard, Hampton and Dillard and also studying at the University of Iowa and the Art Institute of Chicago. Catlett’s large body of work cements her status as one of the great African American artists of the 20th century, and her obituaries note that she was one of the last remaining links to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s. Catlett was also married to another Rosenwald fellow, artist Charles White.

One of Catlett’s best-known works, a series of linoleum-block prints called The Negro Woman, was created with the help of consecutive Rosenwald fellowships in 1946 and 1947. The abstract black and white images in this series include portraits of black women doing everyday tasks, pictures of black luminaries such as Harriet Tubman and striking images of segregation and labor organization. The images are made more powerful by their bold and matter of fact titles, such as “I have always worked hard in America” and “My right is a future of equality with other Americans.” A print from this series belonging to the Whitney Museum can be viewed online here.

“Singing Head,” Elizabeth Catlett, 1980
Photo Credit: Michael Rose
Property of Smithsonian American Art Museum

It was the Rosenwald fellowship that initially brought Catlett to Mexico, where she spent the latter half of her life. According to Daniel Schulman’s essay in A Force for Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Catlett spent the first year of her fellowship thinking creatively about how to make a sophisticated artwork that would still communicate to a mass audience. At the same time, Catlett was honing her printmaking craft (which she first studied at Howard) at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a political printmaking collective in Mexico. The Rosenwald grant allowed Catlett the freedom to gradually develop The Negro Woman, which Schulman, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, called “[maybe] the most successfully realized and powerful project to have emerged from a Rosenwald Fellowship.”

Harry Crews

Author and University of Florida professor of creative writing Harry Crews, who also passed away within the last week (March 28th) spoke of a connection to Sears in his early life. Crews grew up in rural Georgia in a household that contained only two books, the Bible and the “Consumer’s Bible,” the annual Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue. As a child, he would make up stories with friends while paging through the catalogue, riffing on its idealized images.

Crews recounted this method of creative storytelling for a 2003 documentary called Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (IMDb), a scene from which can be seen here. “See, when I was a boy, the Sears Roebuck catalogue […] came to everybody’s mailbox in the South,” says Crews in the documentary. “First thing that struck us was everybody in the Sears Roebuck catalogue was perfect. Wasn’t any baldheads, everybody had all the fingers that was coming to ‘em. Nobody had any open and running sores on their bodies. But everybody we knew had a finger missing or one eye put out from a staple glancing off a post. In other words, everybody in our world was maimed and mutilated whereas everybody in the Sears Roebuck world was perfect. And so we just started to tell stories about the people. We’d give them names.”

The Washington Post ran detailed obituaries for both Ms. Catlett and Mr. Crews.

By Michael Rose

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