Charles H. Houston, opponent of segregation, filmed the Rosenwald Schools

Posted June 27th, 2012 by

Charles H. Houston, a key figure in the history of legal challenges to segregation, also has an interesting connection to the Rosenwald Schools. Houston, who was born in Washington D.C., went on to practice law in the area as well as instruct students such as Thurgood Marshall at Howard Law School. His career as a lawyer spanned the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, and included many important civil rights cases. Kenneth W. Mack’s new book, Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer, gives an excellent background of Houston’s life and accomplishments.

Being a lawyer, Houston focused especially on the integration of the country’s legal system. At this time, segregation in the courts was different than the segregation faced by other professions, like doctors, teachers or small business owners. As W.E.B. Du Bois observed in 1899, since “a lawyer must have co-operation from fellow lawyers and respect and influence in court… prejudice or discrimination of any kind is especially felt in this profession.” Especially in the South, black attorneys were forced to put up with many hurdles and limits set up within the courtroom. In 1933, Houston accepted a case with which he could challenge the segregated Southern court system in Loudoun County, Virginia. In the murder trial of George Crawford, Houston set important precedents for the rights of black attorneys to argue major cases and the importance of black participation in juries.

Although Houston did not live to see the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a project he undertook during the fall of 1934 played a major role in the landmark verdict. During this time, Houston traveled to the South and filmed black schools in order to document the inequalities under Jim Crow segregation. These films (funded by a philanthropic organization out of New York, the Harmon Foundation) went on to be used as a vital exhibit in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 (four years after Houston’s death).

These films are important to our project on Julius Rosenwald for an unlikely reason. While they were meant to demonstrate the failure of school districts to maintain black schools (the intertitles point out that the roofs and windows are in need of repair) they remain as possibly the oldest moving images of Rosenwald Schools. Houston’s footage of what is believed to be the Bethel Grade School in South Carolina will be featured in the upcoming documentary, The Rosenwald Schools, a clip from which can be viewed here:

 

 

In addition to breaking down the barriers of segregation in the legal system, Houston was a great believer in the importance of equal educational opportunity. In 1935, he claimed that “Discrimination in education is symbolic of all the more drastic discriminations which Negroes suffer in American life” (quoted in Genna Rae McNeil and A. Leon Higginbotham’s biography, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights). Like Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington before him, Houston fought for equality in education for all.

By Michael Rose

Rosenwald School work in progress screens at American University

Posted June 27th, 2012 by

Last Thursday, June 21st, Aviva Kempner showed her work in progress of the upcoming film The Rosenwald Schools to an American University audience at the Katzen Arts Center on Massachusetts Ave NW. The event was part of a month-long lecture series from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. The film received a warm reception by the OLLI members. Some members of the audience offered to do fundraising events for the film.

Aviva Kempner speaks at American University
Photo credit: Lena Frumin, 6/21/12

Coincidence at DuArt Film Labs

Posted June 19th, 2012 by

On a recent visit to DuArt Film Labs in Midtown Manhattan (an excellent company that is an independent filmmaker’s best ally, especially its head Irwin Young and a savior for many independent productions) I was taken aback by a familiar face up on the wall. I was in town primarily to promote The Rosenwald Schools documentary and all of a sudden I found myself face to face in one of DuArt’s offices with a picture of Julius Rosenwald himself. The picture turned out to be part of a 2012 calendar (sponsored by the supermarkets of New York City) that is honoring famous philanthropists. The June subject is Julius Rosenwald, and his picture graces this month’s page along with a summary of his achievements in philanthropy. Gloria Monge was kind enough to tear out the June page featuring Rosenwald so we could share a digital copy of it here.

 

During his life, Rosenwald was reluctant to put his name on his philanthropic projects–a practice which has resulted in his relative lack of notoriety compared to other early 20th century philanthropists–so it is always good to see him remembered in some way. These sorts of fateful coincidences have happened over and over during the production of The Rosenwald Schools and it gives us a lot of encouragement that the film we’re making is an important one.

Films by Aviva Kempner screen at National Museum of American Jewish History

Posted June 4th, 2012 by

Aviva Kempner

The Rosenwald Schools work in progress screened at the National Museum of American Jewish History on May 23rd. Following the screening, Aviva Kempner was on hand to discuss the film, which is currently in production. Two earlier films by Ms. Kempner, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, also screened recently at NMAJH in Philadelphia.

Outside the Christian Street YMCA

While visiting Philadelphia, Aviva also stopped by the site of the Christian Street YMCA, which is tucked away on a mostly residential block just south of Center City. Contrary to a note found on the historical plaque in front of the YMCA, this was not the first black YMCA to have its own building. However, it was one of the earliest black YMCAs to make use of Rosenwald’s challenge grant and it is still operating in the same location today. This historic and diverse neighborhood is also the birthplace of the famous singer—and 1930 Rosenwald Fellow—Marian Anderson.

Aviva with Art Salazar

New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools

Posted June 1st, 2012 by

Filming for the upcoming The Rosenwald Schools is moving forward. On May 16th and 17th, we filmed several interviews with experts and descendents of people who either worked with Julius Rosenwald or were touched by his philanthropy.

ON MADAM C.J. WALKER


A’Lelia Bundles with Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: Michael Rose

First up, on May 16th, was A’Lelia Bundles, who fondly recalled her great-great-grandmother, Madam C.J. Walker, a famous African-American entrepreneur from the early 20th century. Madam Walker started out as a washerwoman but “promoted herself” little by little until she ran her own hugely successful business producing hair care products for African-American women. Walker, whose factory was in Indianapolis, was generous and community-minded as well, and was one of the principal donors to the Julius Rosenwald YMCA on Senate Avenue in Indianapolis, giving $1,000 to the cause. This incredibly generous donation was the largest by a black donor to a Rosenwald YMCA, putting her on a level with the donations from white Indianapolis businessman and helping to spearhead the pledge drive in the black community. Ms. Bundles stressed the passion for philanthropy that accompanied her great-great-grandmother’s keen business sense:

“I think [her gift of $1,000 to the YMCA] transformed her, in a way, because she realized that selling hair care products was really a means to an end, that the greater good that she could do would be to give back to her community [and] to contribute to institutions like the YMCA. […] She really saw her business as a way to make a difference.” (A’Lelia Bundles)

A’Lelia Bundles with Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: Michael Rose

Ms. Bundles, a former television producer and writer, is an excellent source for information about the life of Madam Walker. In 2001, she compiled her research into an entertaining and informative biography entitled On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. Ms. Bundles also spoke of the positive effects of the YMCA that Rosenwald and Madam Walker partnered to fund.

“It was really the hub of political and social activity in the African-American community for many years. Although the building is no longer there, the memories and the legacy of what Julius Rosenwald and Madam Walker and others did really still lingers.” (A’Lelia Bundles)

ON HOUSING IN CHICAGO

Next we spoke to Clarence Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist of the Chicago Tribune. Mr. Page is an expert on the history of housing in black Chicago. In the interview, Mr. Page lauded the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments (built by Julius Rosenwald) as a timely and very practical solution to the housing shortage in the Black Belt area of Chicago’s South Side.

Clarence Page
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

“At a time when many African Americans were coming into Chicago and looking for decent housing and many of them finding opportunity and moving up the ladder into the middle class, there wasn’t enough housing there to accommodate their needs. And so Michigan Garden Apartments, that sort of development, was a real godsend for many folks who were looking for a real community and a real place to belong. […] It became a neighborhood in itself, and this is why a lot of folks just knew it as the Rosenwald Gardens more than the Michigan Gardens, because his name was so well known, respected, and beloved by so many South Siders.” (Clarence Page)

Because of racial covenants in residential developments, even upwardly mobile black Chicagoans had trouble finding decent housing. Like many of Rosenwald’s philanthropic projects, the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments was designed to help improve the situation of African-Americans under racial segregation as a stopgap measure until integration could occur. “The Rosenwald,” as it was known by many, was a beloved and elegant building with spacious interior grounds and generously sized units.

ON DR. CHARLES DREW

On May 17th, we interviewed two experts on the life of Dr. Charles Drew, a surgeon from Washington D.C. who made use of a timely grant from the Rosenwald Fund to finish medical school. Dr. Drew was a talented, driven doctor who is most well known for his pioneering work on blood transfusions during World War II. Our first interviewee on this subject was Dr. Drew’s daughter, Charlene Drew Jarvis, a former D.C. Councilwoman who followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a doctor of neuropsychology and working with the American Red Cross.

Charlene Drew Jarvis
Photo credit: Michael Rose

Ms. Drew Jarvis related the story of Dr. Drew’s application to the Rosenwald Fund. In 1931, Drew was already a junior in McGill University’s medical school, but was unsure if he would be able to continue due to his financial situation. His parents were struggling because of the Depression and he was no longer able to make extra money officiating basketball and football games due to the busy schedule of classes and his work at the hospital. Drew applied to the Rosenwald Fund and received a $1,000 grant that allowed him to complete medical school. Ms. Drew Jarvis read from a letter that her father wrote to the Rosenwald Fund later in life, thanking them for their support:

“The fellowship which I received from the Rosenwald Fund came at a rather needy and critical period of my training. I remain continuously grateful to the memory of the man who made such aid possible and fully conscious of the spirit in which such grants are made. It is my sincere intention to serve well as I go along from day to day. It is my constant hope that I shall be able at some time to add some new thought, discover some new process or create something which will prevent or cure disease, alleviate suffering or give men a chance to live and grow and smile more freely and thereby, in part, repay the debt, which I am happy to acknowledge.” (Dr. Charles Drew, quoted by Charlene Drew Jarvis)

Dr. Drew was also an inspirational and gifted teacher to many African-American medical students at Howard University. Our second interviewee was Dr. DeMaurice Moses, a pediatrician who was born in Washington D.C. and later served as the only black doctor in a community in Washington state. Dr. Moses was inspired to succeed by hearing Dr. Drew speak as a young child, and recalled Dr. Drew’s bold maxim, “Excellence of performance will transcend adversity and other difficulties such as discrimination.” As pioneers in the racially segregated medical profession, both Dr. Drew and Dr. Moses had to work even harder for the respect of their peers and their communities, but both rose to the task.

Dr. DeMaurice Moses and Charlene Drew Jarvis
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

Ms. Drew Jarvis illuminated another link between Rosenwald and Dr. Drew, the black YMCA in Washington D.C. Rosenwald gave funding to the organization’s building on 12th Street NW, a building which Ms. Drew Jarvis called a “cultural icon” in the community. “For many African-American kids,” including a young Charles Drew, the 12th Street Y “was the center of their recreation and the center of their cultural upbringing.”


Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

Sadly, Dr. Drew died prematurely at the age of 45 in a 1950 car crash after falling asleep at the wheel while driving from Washington D.C. to Tuskegee, Alabama. There is an urban legend that claims Dr. Drew’s subsequent death was a result of the unwillingness of the North Carolina hospital that took him in to administer blood from a white donor. This story is probably appealing because of its irony—Dr. Drew had fought passionately against segregation of blood banks—but it is not entirely factual. Dr. Moses explained that the hospital in Burlington, North Carolina did everything it could for Dr. Drew, but pointed out the role that racial discrimination did play in the car crash itself, which was brought on by the fatigue of driving overnight.

“He was not able to simply stop his vehicle and get lodging in a hotel or motel because African-Americans could not stay in hotels or motels during that time. […] American discrimination against African-Americans actually prevented the United States and the world from the services of Dr. Drew for perhaps another fifty years.” (Dr. DeMaurice Moses, on Dr. Drew’s car crash)

ON THE RIDGELEY SCHOOL

The Ridgeley School
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

On May 17th, at the Ridgeley School, a Rosenwald-funded school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, we interviewed two descendents of a local family instrumental in the school’s construction, Mildred Ridgley-Gray and her daughter, LaVerne Gray. Later, we talked to Joanna M. Smith, a representative of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, whose Prince George’s County chapter spearheaded the campaign to restore the school and continue to volunteer their time as tour guides for the public.

Aviva Kempner with Mildred Ridgley-Gray
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

Both Mildred and LaVerne attended the Ridgeley School, and it was Mildred’s mother who donated the land on which it was built. Mildred stressed the role Julius Rosenwald’s philanthropy played in ameliorating the ill effects of the of Jim Crow segregation. In rural area, so-called “separate but equal” school segregation often resulted in a situation where black children literally couldn’t go to school in their community because the only schoolhouse was reserved for white children. Mildred pointed out the hypocrisy of taxes from black citizens in southern communities going to pay for a school system that excluded their children:

If it wasn’t for Julius Rosenwald, we would not have been exposed to the curriculum that the taxpayer dollars were paying for. Ridgeley School offered that opportunity.” (Mildred Ridgley-Gray)

Mildred Ridgley-Gray
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

Mildred also shared a humorous Sears-related memory from her childhood.

“[When] the new catalogue came in, the [old] catalogue was given to us to look at and to select clothing and to learn the names of clothing and what we wanted. We had wish lists and we could fantasize with that. […] After that, it went out into the outside toilets that we had on the farm, and we used pages from that as toilet tissue. […] The Sears catalogue was next to the Bible in our home.”

On the set with Mildred Ridgley-Gray
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

Mildred’s daughter, LaVerne Gray spoke about the emotions she gets when she sees the restored Ridgeley School:

“When I see it all restored like this, of course it brings back all the memories of childhood. […] There’s a certain pride for what actually happened. Not just for my family, but to know that Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald [came] together and [created] something fabulous; schools for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity.” (LaVerne Gray)

Aviva Kempner with LaVerne Gray
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

Part of what made the Rosenwald schools inspiring for students is that each building was designed with care, with beautiful windows yielding large light-filled classrooms. LaVerne spoke about this architectural style and also about the way the Ridgeley School is situated in the community:

What I remember so strongly is turning that corner on Central Avenue, coming down the panhandle to get to the school. And when you get to the end, it opens up in front of you, this wonderful building. I think that’s how I got to love architecture, just something about the strength of that building.” (LaVerne Gray)

Artifacts in the restored Ridgeley School
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

Joanna Smith is a native of Columbus, Ohio and therefore was not well informed about the Rosenwald schools prior to moving to Prince George’s County in the late 1960s. However, when she heard about the historical schools at a community meeting, she encouraged the service oriented Delta Sorority to join forces with Mildred Ridgley-Gray to restore the school. The history of the Ridgeley School is now very familiar to Ms. Smith, and she spoke positively about Rosenwald’s part in it:

“If I was in the room with Julius Rosenwald, I would certainly want to thank him for his vision of seeing that the black youth were educated. His top priority was that everyone should have a right toward education. And even though it was separate, still they should be educated. And I would thank him for his vision.” (Joanna M. Smith)


Joanna M. Smith
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

By Michael Rose