New Interviews for The Rosenwald Schools – Tuskegee Edition

Posted on September 24th, 2013 by

On August 22nd and 23rd, Aviva Kempner, director of The Rosenwald Schools traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama to film nine interviews with experts on a variety of topics related to Julius Rosenwald, the Rosenwald Fund, Booker T. Washington and, last but not least, Tuskegee University itself.

We recently finished processing the 5+ hours of footage Aviva and the Alabama crew shot. Below you’ll find some interesting excerpts from the interviews along with photos from the shoot.

The Interviewees


Aviva Kempner and Shirley Baxter, (National Park Service Ranger)
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

The first two interviews of the day were shot in Booker T. Washington’s study in the historic home, known as “The Oaks,” that was built for him on Tuskegee’s campus. Shirley Baxter of the National Park Service introduced us to The Oaks. With its Victorian details and unusual features (a dry sauna, for example, which Washington requested after visiting Europe) the house was not typical of the Tuskegee area at the time it was built and, interestingly, it was the first building in the area with electricity. While some have criticized it for being opulent and out of place, designing and building it allowed students to study valuable architecture and construction techniques. It also served as a showpiece to the northern philanthropists Washington would entertain at Tuskegee (such as Julius Rosenwald, who stayed there several times). Both Baxter and Dana Chandler, Tuskegee University’s Archivist, described the parades, choir performances and dinners that greeted Rosenwald and his guests when they visited Tuskegee. According to Dana Chandler, while the dinners were designed to impress out of town guests, for someone like Rosenwald, who had spent his entire life in the North, they offered a real opportunity to experience another culture.

[The Oaks was] classy, but not over the top. The people that would come down with Julius Rosenwald would be treated to the local cuisine. They would eat turnip greens; they would eat grits: you know, the local foods. And from what I understand, many of them went back to their homes with a better appreciation of what we had here.

In addition to building the house, Tuskegee students staffed and even grew the food for these dinners. Washington, Baxter noted, was an avid gardener when he was not traveling, rising at 5:30 in the morning to feed his chickens and tend to his garden behind The Oaks.


Booker T. Washington feeding his chickens at The Oaks
Photo credit: Library of Congress, unknown date

Later that day, Aviva stopped by the Shiloh School to interview Edith Powell. The Shiloh School is a Rosenwald School nearby Tuskegee, and was the 2nd school built in a community that housed one of the original pilot schools of the Rosenwald School building program. Ms. Powell has been active in the school’s restoration for years, and Shiloh School stands among the finest examples of restored Rosenwald Schools in the country. Ms. Powell described the restoration process and also spoke about what the school meant for Notasulga, Alabama:

In the past, the school represented a way for children to get a quality education. Before this school was built in this area, [education for African Americans] was not of a level that could even compare to the whites. This school was state of the art and it represented the will of the community and the parents to have their children get a quality education at whatever cost. And they are the ones who raised the money.


The Shiloh Rosenwald School
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Along with The Oaks, there’s another National Park site in Tuskegee with a Rosenwald connection. In 1941, nine years after Rosenwald’s death, new Rosenwald Fund board member Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee in support of the nascent flight-training program and took a test flight with a black pilot (Charles Alfred Anderson) to prove to the rest of the country that black aviators were ready and able to serve in the military. Roosevelt’s visit to Tuskegee is a great story (that you can read more about in a previous blog post) and it resulted in the Rosenwald Fund giving a loan of $175,000 for the construction of an airfield and basic training facility called Moton Field that still stands today. Park Ranger Robert Stewart told us that around 1,000 pilots trained at Moton Field, almost half of which saw overseas action in World War II in places like Morocco, Tunisia and Sicily. We filmed Mr. Stewart in front of the very airplane (a J-3 Piper Cub) that Roosevelt and Anderson went up in back in 1941 (the plane is also visible below). Stewart talked about the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen during the war, but he also stressed the way the program impacted the lives of pilots after the war:

When I think about what this site personally means to me, I think about all the men who came here that learned how to fly that went overseas to fight against fascism and then came back home and fought against racism. Many of the Tuskegee Airmen, when they went overseas and they had a chance to fly and defend their country, had their eyes opened. Because of the things they were taught here, they went off and helped to start what we know as the Civil Rights movement.


Aviva Kempner, Robert Stewart and another NPS Park Ranger at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Anyone who visits or attends Tuskegee University cannot help but experience the work of one of its important, but less well known ‘founding fathers’. Aviva interviewed Dr. Richard Dozier, Dean Emeritus of the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science, about the Tuskegee architecture school’s namesake. In 1892, Booker T. Washington recruited Robert Taylor, the first black graduate from MIT in architecture to establish an architecture school that could design and produce all the necessary buildings for Tuskegee’s future campus. It’s amazing that Taylor was able to train his students not only to design and build each campus building from scratch, but also to use whatever local materials that were available or could be created (such as bricks). Of course, one of Taylor’s most important legacies is his impact on the design of many of the Rosenwald Schools. The schools were frequently built according to a design Taylor invented that maximized natural light and usable space in small (by modern standards) floorplans. Dr. Dozier made an interesting point about this in his interview:

We find that Taylor was responsible for making a good many of those decisions that we call “green architecture” long before we arrived here today. The ventilation, the orientation of the building on the site and also the utilization of the space. In hot humid weather [Taylor and his students] were able to design buildings that you could open the windows, you could raise the ceilings, let the air flow through. The rooms were flexible. They didn’t have that much electricity so they had to provide light. [Tuskegee] had a very practical architecture – this is all green architecture and this is all avant-garde of architecture.


Robert R. Taylor, 1906
Photo credit: Library of Congress (not online)

Other interviewees included Gilbert Rochon, president of Tuskegee University and his wife Patricia Saul Rochon. Dr. Rochon spoke of the amazing legacy Booker T. Washington left at Tuskegee and talked about what a daunting task it must have been for Washington to build the campus from the ground up:

It was no mean feat for Booker T. Washington, with only $2,000 and at the time no campus, no faculty, no students, to get this place established. Notwithstanding that, it had to come to pass within a city that was very much segregated. In order for Tuskegee to survive it had to provide everything; it had to be a world unto itself. They produced their own food, they raised their own animals, they had their own mortuary, they established a bank; they established everything that was needed in order to be a self-sufficient town. There was a railroad that came through and I’m told that it was the only railroad where there was a black conductor.


Dr. Gilbert Rochon, president of Tuskegee University
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Patricia Rochon told us about the less well-known contributions of Washington’s three wives to life at Tuskegee. Rochon especially stressed the role of Margaret Murray Washington in the early days of Tuskegee, explaining that she had the same clarity of vision as Booker Washington and that she would act in an administrative role on his behalf during the many times when he was away speaking or fundraising. We also interviewed Dr. Kenneth Hamilton of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, author of an upcoming book that reorients the legacy of Booker T. Washington in the history of racial progress in the United States. Dr. Hamilton defended Booker T. Washington from the common latter-day criticisms of accommodationism by emphasizing his passionate pursuit of economic justice.


Aviva Kempner and Dr. Kenneth Hamilton
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Many thanks to these wonderful interviewees for giving their time and knowledge to our project.