New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools, March 2014 edition

Posted on March 28th, 2014 by

More lovely interviews for The Rosenwald Schools were filmed earlier this week in Washington D.C. First of the day was Stephanie Meeks, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Ms. Meeks told us about the National Trust’s involvement in Rosenwald School rehabilitation projects across the South, and their goal of restoring 100 of the roughly 800 extant structures in honor of the 100th anniversary of Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington’s school-building program.

Ms. Meeks said that when she initially learned about the tri-fold funding structure of the original Rosenwald Schools, she was “astounded” that the often impoverished local African American residents were expected and able to raise a third of the money necessary to build each school in the program. This matching grant strategy amplified the effect of Rosenwald’s philanthropy dollar for dollar, but it also helped community members get emotionally invested and protective of their community’s new school. Meeks sees a parallel to this in her own experience with Rosenwald School rehabilitation projects of today:

In many ways that same model is being replicated today in the rehabilitation of the Rosenwald Schools. The National Trust is working to provide technical assistance to communities as well as grant funding that we’ve been able to accrue from other philanthropists. And the communities, the students and graduates themselves, are perpetuating this virtuous circle by reaching into their own pockets, putting money forward to help with the rehabilitation costs of some of these buildings. They understand that the preservation and the restoration of the Rosenwald schools is a way of keeping this story alive and continuing to contribute to the community.


Aviva Kempner and Edwin B. Henderson, II
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, March 25, 2014

Next up was Edwin B. Henderson, II, who we met at a panel discussion last month. Mr. Henderson is a historical preservationist living in Falls Church, Virginia. His mission is to preserve the legacy of his grandfather (with whom he shares his name), an early 20th century educator who established the first black athletic league in the District of Columbia. Dr. E.B. Henderson is known for his work in physical education, but as his grandson explained to us, he always had a broader scope for African American achievement:

My grandfather, Dr. E.B. Henderson, his philosophy was that, given equal access for African Americans to physical training and fundamentals of the sports, that they would be equal or superior to their white counterparts. [He] used physical education and athletics as a tool, not in and of itself, but as a way to send qualified African Americans to Northern colleges and debunk the myth of racial inferiority.

E.B. Henderson taught students like Robert Weaver (who went on to become the first African American to serve on a presidential cabinet) and his basketball program in Washington D.C. produced such luminaries as Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing and John Thompson. Henderson’s work was given a boost in 1912 when the Julius Rosenwald-funded 12th Street YMCA opened in the U Street area of Washington, providing a basketball court to a community that was severely lacking in recreational spaces. Having failed to convince the public schools to invest in large gymnasiums for young ballplayers, Dr. Henderson was extremely grateful when the Rosenwald Y was constructed.


A student studyinh in a dorm room at the 12th Street YMCA, circa 1910-1930
Photo credit: Library of Congress via Addison N. Scurlock

We also spoke to Rabbi Howard A. Berman about the Reform synagogue Julius Rosenwald attended in Chicago, which was headed by the dynamic Rabbi Emil Hirsch. Hirsch kept Temple Sinai at the forefront of progressive Judaism by breaking down cultural barriers with other Chicago communities, harshly criticizing racism and experimenting with radical ideas like services on Sunday. By way of explaining just how far ahead of the curve Hirsch, Sinai and Rosenwald were, Berman related this anecdote:

[Rabbi Emil Hirsch] asked Jane Addams to preach the sermon during one of those Sundays [at Sinai]. This was regarded as the first time that a woman–let alone a woman, but a non-Jewish woman–would speak from a Jewish pulpit. Her topic was the moral imperative of birth control for women in the 19th century. This was an unbelievable kind of a combinations of factors. If you wanted to have the perfect storm of shock value, it happened in Sinai Temple sanctuary on that particular Sunday. But that was very much Hirsch’s vision.


Rabbi Howard A. Berman
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, March 25, 2014

Our final interviewee of the day is a Professor of English at the George Washington University in Washington D.C. Lisa Page teaches Langston Hughes’ poetry in her university courses and she graciously related some stories of Hughes’ life during his two Rosenwald Fund fellowships (1931 and 1941).


Aviva Kempner and Lisa Page, March 25, 2014
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, March 25, 2014

Page grew up in Chicago nearby the Museum of Science and Industry, one of the most visible legacies of Julius Rosenwald. Rosenwald paid for the reuse of the historic 1893 World’s Fair building and the new museum, which original bore his name. You can read more about the Museum of Science and Industry’s history on our blog here. Page had some great memories about attending the museum as a child that she shared with us:

The Museum of Science of Industry was our playground, my sister and I, growing up. Every weekend, especially in Chicago in the winter when you can’t be outside it’s so cold. The Museum of Science and Industry was a few blocks away from our house, so every Saturday we headed to the museum of Science and Industry and lived there. We lived inside the human heart, the coalmine. We’d go see the baby chicks. All of these wonderful exhibits that you got to interact with. The whisper gallery. We just went over and over again to these same places. The German submarine, Colleen Moore’s dollhouse. We just lived down there dreaming of shrinking down to size and being able to live in that palace that she put together. It was this wonderful place for us to be.


Chicks hatch every day at the Museum of Science and Industry, showing genetic diversity at work
Photo credit: Lenny Flank (flickr)

Thanks to all our great interviewees!