D.C. interviews for The Rosenwald Schools reveal intriguing insights, surprising connections

Posted on January 9th, 2013 by

One of the pleasures of producing The Rosenwald Schools has been that, even though we select our interviewees based on their knowledge on a specific topic, more often than not they surprise us with fascinating facts, anecdotes and new points of view that we weren’t previously aware of. This was very much the case with the interviews we filmed on December 11th, and we’re extremely thankful for the time and effort of the interviewees who spoke with us that day.

The Rosenwald Schools

One great surprise occurred during our interview with David Driskell, a longtime art professor and a noted artist himself. We initially reached out to Mr. Driskell because of his knowledge of African American art and Rosenwald Fund fellows (several of whom he knew personally), but it turns out he had a story to share about a Rosenwald School as well from his upbringing in rural Rutherford County, North Carolina.

In the spring of each year, we would leave our little one-room school to go down to Cliffside, North Carolina to a four-room school, which I was told was a Rosenwald school. It was a brick building, and we didn’t have any brick buildings in our area. We would go there for what we called Commencement. It had nothing to do with graduation, it actually had to do with displaying your creative skills, your oratorical skills, drawing, paintings […] and it was where I first exhibited my art made from the local clay in the brooks. (David Driskell, Dec. 11, 2012).


David Driskell (with a poster advertising his artwork in the background)

Another unexpected connection was made in our next interview, with Denise Johnson. Ms. Johnson is a descendent of Clinton Calloway, head of Tuskegee’s Extension Department and a crucial administrator of the Julius Rosenwald’s school-building program. Johnson is a resident of the Washington D.C. area, and she also shared with us that Clinton Calloway’s brother, Thomas, founded a town named Lincoln in nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland, where he organized the construction of a Rosenwald School.

It was Thomas’ idea to give African Americans at the time an opportunity to buy land to live in a community on their own. Thomas bought land and sold it in small plots to families. As the communities started to grow they needed to have a school, and it’s my understanding that the local government was not forthcoming in providing the funds for the school. Interestingly enough—and maybe not as a surprise—Thomas decided to call on the Rosenwald Fund and ask for help. (Denise Johnson, Dec. 11, 2012)


Aviva Kempner with Denise Johnson

The Lincoln Rosenwald School is one a few extant Rosenwald Schools in Prince George’s County, though it is heavily remodeled. Its current address is 5201 Baltimore Lane, Lanham, Maryland.

The 12th Street YMCA

The legacy of the Rosenwald Fund is felt even more strongly in another part of the D.C. area, where the pilot building in Rosenwald’s YMCA-building program stands in the heart of the historic African American community around U Street NW (we detailed the path the building took to construction in another blog post). In addition to shooting footage of the YMCA’s beautiful and well-preserved interior (which includes historical exhibits about the luminaries who frequented the building), we talked to the Dodsons, a father and daughter who are both experts on local history. Norris Dodson, who used the YMCA’s facilities as a young man and remains a passionate advocate for the building, spoke about the importance of passing that history on to the next generation.

When I played basketball at the 12th Street Y, I always recall having fun, making connections with people my age, learning to play fairly. But the one thing that was missing is that I was not told about the wonderful history of the building, that great basketball players played here: Elgin Baylor, John Thompson. In fact, John Thompson told us that he was discovered here. But I was never aware that John Thompson played here when I was playing. When I found that out, I was an adult. And I always thought that if I had known these guys played here, that I would have been a better basketball player, just because of that. I thought it was sad that so many kids in the neighborhood didn’t know that Dr. Drew and Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes and Montague Cobb and so many others who had international reputations, reputations that grew far beyond this community, all met here. If the kids of some generations had realized that, if that history had been taught to them, they would have been able to have confidence that they didn’t have and use that confidence to grow to higher levels. (Norris Dodson, Dec. 11, 2012)


Our cameraman, Michael Moser, getting some exterior shots of the YMCA

Lori Dodson, Norris’s daughter, added context to her father’s interview and also revealed a more recent connection between the 12th Street YMCA and Julius Rosenwald:

In 1982, due to the deterioration of this lovely building, it was forced to close its doors. It was a travesty because it was during a time when there were so many ills in the community, many problems among youth and drugs. It was a time, like during segregation, where this building and the type of character that it developed was sorely needed. And so a group of people came together, concerned citizens, and decided that they were going to protest the potential demolition of this building, […] a place like this that is so historically significant. […] Julius Rosenwald was key in making sure that this building was open and his family was also involved in making sure that it reopened once again. If this building were not open today then my family would have lost a lot of our personal history, and I know that that’s the case of many, many families. (Lori Dodson, Dec 11, 2012)


Lori Dodson on our set in one of the restored rooms of the YMCA

Artists of the Rosenwald Fund

Along with David Driskell, we interviewed another art history scholar, Dr. Richard Powell of Duke University. Powell is a wonderful storyteller and a fount of knowledge about Rosenwald fellows. He shared a series of backgrounds on notable beneficiaries of the Rosenwald Fund with us, including this story about sculptor and teacher Augusta Savage:

Augusta Savage is a legend in African American art history. I say that because so much of her life was filled with struggle, with perseverance and with creativity all mixed up. She comes from Florida, she settles in New York in the early 1920s. She’s working very hard to try to develop her skills as a visual artist and she’s lucky enough to win a prize that will allow her to go to France. The Fontainebleau School provides her with [this] opportunity, until they find out that [she] is African American. When word gets around through the Fontainebleau School that they are about to bring an African American to the school, they basically say, “No, we’re not going to give this award to you.” And it actually is a cause célèbre. [Later, in the early 1930s,] thanks to the Rosenwald Foundation, Augusta Savage has an opportunity to go to France. France, for artists, is like a dream come true: the opportunity to walk in the paths of other famous artists, to live a life that is liberating without people questioning or looking at you based on your race. She has a wonderful experience there. Interestingly, when she comes back to Harlem, she then shifts gears back into the community [and] puts all of her energy and effort into developing an art school, the Harlem Arts Center, as one of the places that young people like [Rosenwald fellow] Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis and other artists will go to learn about art. I often describe Augusta Savage’s school as a kind of latchkey school for young aspiring artists. Her school ended up being not just a place to study art, but it became kind of a community center. (Richard Powell, Dec. 11, 2012)

Savage was not the only Rosenwald fellow that went on to become a teacher and mentor to younger artists (other examples include Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas and Charles White) and we’re excited to be able to tell her story and the stories of other Rosenwald fellows in The Rosenwald Schools, and grateful to those who have lent their voices to the film.


Dr. Richard Powell

By Michael Rose