Interview Shoot in Georgia

Posted on December 24th, 2013 by

I just got back from a wonderful shoot in Valdosta, Georgia.

Barney Rosenwald School
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, December, 2013

The Valdosta, Georgia area was home to at least two Rosenwald Schools. After the Morven Rosenwald School was demolished, alumni of both Morven and the Barney Rosenwald School, joined together to restore the Barney School. While in Valdosta, I interviewed seven of these local residents who graduated from the schools and who are working together to save Barney from decay: Barbara and Gerald Golden, Delois Baker, Evelyn Morrison, Jerry Gilbert, Jonathan Smallwood and Lillie Pearl Thompson. Many thanks to our Valdosta interviewees for sharing their stories! Special thanks to the Goldens and the others for their hard work in bringing the school back to life and the warm memories of being educated there. I am especially grateful to the Goldens for making all the arrangements for me to film.

Aviva Kempner with Gerald Golden
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, December, 2013

I also conducted an interview with Alfred Perkins, author of Edwin Rogers Embree: The Julius Rosenwald Fund, Foundation Philanthropy, and American Race Relations, who was gracious enough to travel to southern Georgia from his home in Florida in order to meet me. In his interview, Perkins did a great job bridging the gap between the two most salient Rosenwald Fund projects, the school-building program and the fellowship program. The Fund’s decision in the late 1920s to discontinue the school-building program was due to new Fund president Edwin Embree and Julius Rosenwald’s shared belief that the program had run its course as a demonstration of what the states could be doing for rural black education. From then on, it would be up to state governments to provide educational facilities for their residents, while the Rosenwald Fund could devote its efforts to improving education itself and to a magnanimous grant program for budding artists, writers and scholars.

It was not that all the needs had been met, but that Embree’s understanding of foundation work was to start the ball rolling, so to speak, to get an innovation well-established, but not to continue to fund it. In the case of the school-building program, the key purpose was to change the consciousness of public officials in the South so that they recognized that they had an obligation to provide adequate education for all the citizens, including the black population of the South.

Perkins also related the story of the very first Rosenwald grant recipient: James Weldon Johnson, who also wrote the “Negro National Anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” After lobbying for increased pay for South Carolina teachers, Embree planned a new project with the then head of the NAACP, Johnson. Some people may think Johnson received the first Rosenwald grant as a kind of reward for his role in the formation of the program, but Perkins argued that it was more due to two other reasons:

Having such a prestigious person receive the award gave it a kind of luster that otherwise it might not have had from the outset. The other consideration is that Mr. Johnson had some quite elaborate projects in mind to carry out. He used that period to write the first history of Harlem. He had in mind creating a kind of oratorio based on God’s Trombones. He wanted to write [and publish] some poems and there were several others significant projects that recommended him as the first recipient of an award.

Alfred Perkins, Edwin Embree’s biographer
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, December, 2013

Perkins described the purpose of the Rosenwald Fund fellowship program like this:

There were many creative talents within the black community that were not fully developed, and what was needed for those talents was an opportunity to devote full-time for a year or so to writing a book or doing a series of paintings or completing sculptures. That was the genesis of the Rosenwald program.

Indeed, while heading the Rosenwald Fund, Embree was driven to raise the ceiling for black achievement, taking a cue from W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of the “talented tenth.” Along with the fellowship program, Embree engineered a deal with University of Chicago that led to the hiring of Allison Davis, the first black faculty member at a historically white university. Likewise, Embree convinced Harold Ickes (Secretary of the Interior under Franklin Roosevelt) to take on a staff member to act as a liaison for the African American community and the White House, with the Rosenwald Fund paying his salary. Although the first man to take this position, Clark Foreman, was white, he was quickly replaced with Robert C. Weaver, an African American economist. Under Embree’s guidance, the Rosenwald Fund successfully pushed for the development of a “black cabinet” during FDR’s administration.

The Rosenwald Fund under Embree became a great supporter of higher education for African Americans. Perhaps most importantly, Embree engineered the formation of Dillard University, the first major black institution of higher education in New Orleans, through the consolidation of the two smaller schools. In its early years, Dillard was staffed and administrated mainly by Rosenwald Fund figures like Horace Mann Bond, Will Alexander and Edgar Stern (son-in-law of Julius Rosenwald). In the Fund’s later years, it became more difficult to give direct financial support to black higher education, but Embree’s creativity and energy continued to show through. Unable to send money directly to Tuskegee Institute to build Moton Field (the airfield where the famous Tuskegee Airmen trained) Embree brokered a loan to the college from the Rosenwald Fund that allowed the airfield to be built.

Along with Johnson, Perkins also talked about the very last Rosenwald fellow: Pearl Primus, a dancer and anthropologist who was born in Trinidad. Ms. Primus performed at the June 4th, 1948 closing ceremony for the Rosenwald Fund at the Stevens Hotel in Chicago. Although she had been turned down for a Rosenwald grant in the past, Perkins explained that “her performance was so captivating on this occasion that after the ceremony, the selection committee met again and decided to award her a Rosenwald fellowship – the last one.”

Primus used her grant to study dance in Africa. She received a $4,000 grant (one of the largest given by the Rosenwald fellowship program) and departed in December of 1948. Typical of the open-ended nature of Rosenwald grants, she told the New York Amsterdam News that her only assignment had been to “go to the parts of Africa where I could find material not only to enrich our theatre but to add to our knowledge of people little understood.” In addition to enriching Primus’s dancing skills, her research of African indigenous dance styles made her a pioneering dance scholar. She shared her discoveries during her trip via dispatches to American newspapers (like the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American) and later, with her many students over the years after she became a university instructor.

Update: December 24, 2013. Clarification of Ickes’ first Rosenwald-funded black staff member, Robert C. Weaver.

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