New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools – D.C. Edition

Posted on September 26th, 2013 by

After filming in Tuskegee we’ve kept up the fast pace of The Rosenwald Schools production schedule by filming 8 more interviews right here in Washington. Read on for pics and interesting tidbits from the two days of interviews shot with two Congressmen, the president of the NAACP, two authors, and a Rosenwald relative, family friend and two fans of the great philanthropist.

Two Congressmen Interviewed

Our first stop on September 10th was the House of Representatives office buildings. After unpacking all of our equipment through the security scanner, we made our way to the office of Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. Mr. Lewis grew up in Alabama and attended the Dunn’s Chapel Elementary School, a Rosenwald School. While Mr. Lewis discussed his harrowing memories of living in the Jim Crow South, the thirst for education by he and his peers and, later, Jewish participation in the Civil Rights movement, we found it interesting that both he and Representative Danny Davis remembered ordering from the Sears Roebuck catalogue as children. In fact, both men talked about ordering live chickens from the catalogue. Mr. Lewis had this to say about Sears:

As a child I remember my parents ordering things from the Sears Roebuck catalogue. This big, thick, heavy book. Some of us called it the ordering book and other of us called it the wish book. We would turn the pages and say “I wish I had this, I wish I had that.” And that book inspired me that I needed to get an education if I wanted certain things. I needed to be prepared; I needed to earn some money to be able to buy.


Aviva Kempner and Congressman John Lewis
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

After Congressman Lewis, we interviewed Congressman Danny Davis of Illinois, whose district includes several Rosenwald-related landmarks in Chicago. Illinois’s 7th Congressional District has within its borders the Rosenwald YMCA on South Wabash Avenue, the massive Sears campus that Rosenwald built on the West Side and the Rosenwald Apartments on the South Side. Mr. Davis mused that during his life he had crossed paths with Sears a remarkable number of times. As Davis put it, from ordering chickens out of the Sears catalogue as a child in Arkansas for a 4-H project, to working at the Sears store as a summer job when he first moved to Chicago, to keeping office space in the old Sears building early in his career as an Illinois Representative, it’s like Sears has been “a part of my life” since childhood. Coincidentally, Davis mentioned that he was about to see the Sears Holdings Associate Gospel Choir perform at a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation on September 19th.


Aviva Kempner and Congressman Danny Davis
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

Davis described Sears as a center of Chicago’s North Lawndale community when he first moved to Chicago as a young man, both figuratively because of its large tower and sprawling campus and economically because so many people from the community. including himself, found work there in various capacities. As you might expect, Davis is also excited about the rehabilitation of a major landmark in another Chicago community, the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments:

It’s kind of a delight that a fellow like Julius Rosenwald saw [overcrowding in Chicago] back then and decided to do something about it in terms of the development of mixed income housing. When I hear people talk about having lived in the big development right on Michigan Avenue and 47th Street [The Rosenwald Apartments], and to know that right now plans are seriously underway for the redevelopment and revitalization of that structure- every time I run into the alderman of that area, Pat Dowell, we never miss having a conversation about it and she’s always smiling.

The Chicago Race Riot of 1919

After Davis, we interviewed Gary Krist, who published City of Scoundrels in 2012, a crackling book about the summer of 1919 in Chicago, a tumultuous but formative time in the city’s history. Krist has written a couple of popular history books and he has a great talent for painting a picture of a fascinating moment in history that is not well-known outside of Chicago. Take his description of the beginning of the 1919 race riot:

Intense competition for jobs and housing was really creating a volatile situation between blacks and whites throughout 1919, and eventually on one of those classic 97 degree summer days, things just exploded. It started with a group of boys from the Black Belt who decided they wanted to go to the beach on this hot Sunday afternoon. They went to this place they called the hot and cold, because the icehouse on the shore released cold water and the brewery on the shore released hot water and it mixed in this place. This was located in a no man’s land between the 25th Street beach, which was called the African American answer to Atlantic City, and the 29th Street beach, which was a de facto white beach.

Beaches were not officially segregated in Chicago at this time, but they were unofficially segregated. It just so happened on this day, several couples, African American couples, had come to the 29th Street beach to forcibly integrate it. They encountered some hostility from the bathers; there was some rock throwing, some shoving. But it might have ended there, if not for these boys who had gotten their raft in the hot and cold and now had drifted down the coast into the waters off the 29th Street beach. A young white man on the shore started throwing rocks at them and unfortunately one of the rocks hit one of the boys and he slid off the raft and ultimately drowned. This proved to be the event that precipitated the violence. Police arrived, shots were fired. It spread throughout the entire south side, and over the next 5 days people were just brutally killing each other in the streets.

The main instigators were the so-called athletic clubs, which were groups of young, usually Irish, white boys, located in the neighborhoods just to the west of the south side. They had been spoiling for a fight all summer long, because of all of these tensions, so they started just arming themselves with knives, with brickbats, bricks, and going around attacking people. They would get into automobiles and drive down State Street and fire at people on the street. They would go to streetcars, climb on top and pull down the trolley assembly so that the streetcar would be immobilized, and then they would take out any black passengers in that car and beat them on the street.

Interestingly, this was one of the first American riots where black people actively fought back, and sometimes, in some instances, were the aggressors. Soon you had black snipers shooting at white rioters from rooftops and windows. Ultimately the scenes played out almost like the war scenes they had just seen in Europe [in World War I] because a lot of the soldiers were among the rioters. It was nightmarish 5 days in Chicago.


Gary Krist and Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

James Jones has written the definitive study of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (Bad Blood, 1993) so we were fortunate to be able to interview him about the Rosenwald Fund’s brief connection to a precursor study. When Edwin Embree took over as head of the Rosenwald Fund, he reoriented its scope somewhat to include more health-related initiatives, one of which was a syphilis treatment program. Because treatment for syphilis at the time was intense and prolonged and because of the inherent difficulties in serving a rural, impoverished population, many doctors had written off treating the African American community as a lost cause despite the shocking prevalence of the disease.


Aviva Kempner and James Jones
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

In 1929, Dr. Jones explained, the Rosenwald Fund organized a syphilis “control demonstration” that consisted of six targeted county treatment programs designed to demonstrate to unmotivated Southern healthcare officials the potential efficacy of syphilis treatment in the African American population. The demonstration was effective, but short-lived, as the Great Depression caused the Fund to withdraw its support prematurely. As Jones put it, while the Rosenwald Fund left the program with regrets because it hadn’t made enough progress combating syphilis in the African American community, the Fund “came out smelling like roses” in regards to the later, infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Unlike the Rosenwald Fund’s anti-syphilis endeavor, which was targeted towards immediate treatment of a suffering populace, the later federally-funded Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was non-therapeutic and actually withheld new effective treatments (e.g. penicillin) from its participants in order to study the long-term effects of the disease.

The Sterns

Julius Rosenwald must have been a great father, as it seems each of his children did something remarkable in their own lives to “repair the world,” whether through giving money or personal efforts to worthy causes. Edith Rosenwald, and her husband Edgar Stern, became notable philanthropists in their own right in New Orleans, helping to found Dillard and working to increase voting rights for African Americans. As The Rosenwald Schools is going to primarily be about the life of Rosenwald, stories about the Sterns will probably not play a big part, but they deserve to be better known. Fortunately, we were able to interview Cokie Roberts, who grew up as a family friend of the Sterns. Ms. Roberts spoke highly of the Sterns’ commitment to social justice, and it was fitting that we spoke to her on the anniversary of Edith Stern’s death in 1980. One of the stories Roberts related was about a meeting between 1930 Rosenwald fellow Marian Anderson and the Stern family:

One of [Edith’s] cooks told her that there was a wonderful singer at her church, and so Aunt Edith decided to go and hear the singer. In fact, she was a wonderful singer: her name was Marian Anderson and Aunt Edith decided to have her come to their home. This was 1932; this was really in the dark ages of black-white relations, particularly in a city like New Orleans. And so she decided to not only invite Marian Anderson to sing at her home but also to have her as the guest of honor. But truly that was not done, I mean really not done. Edgar Stern was a little concerned about it, as the story goes, he said to [Edith] “We could lose some friends over this.” And she said “Well then we’ll see who our friends are.”


Cokie Roberts and Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

Anderson’s concert at the Stern’s house apparently went over without major incident, but she continued to face discrimination in concert venues. Most people know the story of her being barred from singing at Constitution Hall (which lead to her iconic 1939 performance in front of the Lincoln Memorial) but it’s less well-known that when she was invited to sing in New Orleans’ Municipal Auditorium a year later, it was the first concert in that venue that allowed black patrons to attend. Even though there was a black singer on stage, the black concert-goers were limited to balcony seating, a segregated arrangement that lead to protests by the NAACP.

Rosenwald and the NAACP

On the topic of the NAACP, our next interviewee was Ben Jealous, current president of the Association. Jealous is an amazing source for the history of the NAACP and a great spokesman for its mission. In his interview, (in addition to discussing life in the Jim Crow South, the Great Migration, “The Crisis” and even Marian Anderson) Jealous echoed some of the points made in the Ciesla Foundation’s recent symposium on the anniversary of the March on Washington.

The NAACP has always been a very black organization, [but] we have always been explicitly a multi-faith, multi-race organization from our very beginning. Jews were active in the NAACP because they were against the racism of the South, but they were also inspired by their fears of what was happening to their own community. And if that could happen to people here based on their color, well, given what was happening to be people based on their faith in Europe, what might happen here soon?


Ben Jealous
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

On a similarly inclusive note, Jealous cleared up a misconception about the origin of the NAACP’s name:

In fact, our name was changed very early on. We were named the National Negro Association in 1909. We became the NAACP in 1910, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. So what happened? Well, some people think that maybe between 1909 and 1910, the word for black people changed. Quite the contrary. At the time, “colored people” meant what people of color means today. It was a much broader category than “Negro,” which just meant black folks.

And so Du Bois comes into a meeting in 1910 and he says, “We have to change our name.” Think about how the other founders must have felt. “Our organization is a year old. We have to do a whole lot of things. One thing we don’t have to do is change our name.” But Du Bois walks in and says, “We’re not trying to simply promote black people; we’re not trying to replace white supremacy with black supremacy. We’re trying to equalize humanity; we’re trying to get everybody at the same level. We don’t want to push white people down; we just want to lift everybody else up.” And colored people in that case referred to the everybody else.

Other interviews

Other interviewees included David Deutsch and Debra and Joshua Levin. Deutsch is Julius Rosenwald’s great-grandson, but he was surprised to learn later in life that his grandmother Adele Rosenwald Levy, who he had spent Thanksgivings with as a child, was a remarkable philanthropist and art collector who had the foresight in 1941 to acquire Jacob Lawrence’s amazing Great Migration series for the Museum of Modern Art.


David Deutsch and Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

Debra and Joshua Levin, who are now married, told us a charming story about their unusual first date. Debra had written a master’s thesis on the work of Julius Rosenwald, so Josh had the idea to take her around to various Rosenwald-related sites in Chicago, such as the Sears plant on Homan Avenue, the Rosenwald Apartments and even his grave in Rosehill Cemetery.


Debra Fried Levin and Joshua Levin
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

Thanks to all our interviewees for taking the time to add your voice to The Rosenwald Schools.