Research and filming for The Rosenwald Schools in the “Music City”

Posted on April 21st, 2014 by

Last week, the Ciesla Foundation’s Aviva Kempner and Michael Rose took a much-anticipated trip to Nashville to work on The Rosenwald Schools production. The purpose of the trip was bifold. The first was to explore the archives of Fisk, an historically black university that holds the Rosenwald Fund’s papers. After beginning in Tuskegee as a result of Booker T. Washington’s collaboration with Julius Rosenwald, the Fund’s school-building program was headquartered in Nashville for most of its duration. The second purpose was to film the alumni of a very special Rosenwald School located 35 miles northeast of Nashville in Cairo, Tennessee. Local historian Velma Brinkley coordinated our visit with alumni who still live in the area and about 15 former students graciously traveled out to their old school to talk to us on a cold, rainy day in early February.


Alumni gathered in front of the Cairo Rosenwald School
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

One of the best surprises of the trip to Cairo was brought to us by Lester Mae Hill, an aluma of the school. When we first arrived at the Cairo School, Ms. Hill and Ms. Brinkley showed us the school’s collection of historic photographs. In one of the photos (pictured below) Ms. Brinkley pointed out a mostly obscured photograph of Julius Rosenwald hanging above the door. While we have often read of Rosenwald’s portrait hanging in a place of honor in the schools he helped to fund, this was the first photographic evidence we’ve come across.


Students at the Cairo School. Ms. Hill is first on the left.
Photo credit: Cairo School alumni, unknown date

When we showed interest in the portrait of JR, which we didn’t see on the wall, Ms. Hill told us she had it stored in a safe place and immediately ran home to get it. Within a few minutes, she returned with a lovely, large portrait of the Sears president and educational benefactor. Some of her family members had taken the photo when the school was being remodeled and Ms. Hill was pleased to return it to its rightful place above the school’s front door. One former student told us that when he attended the school he was told it was of a benefactor of the school but did not know the name of Julius Rosenwald until recently.


Lester Mae Hill with the Cairo School’s portrait of Mr. Rosenwald
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

For this shoot we worked with a Nashville-based crew, Chris Conder and Steve LePard. Chris and Steve did some great work for us despite the chilly conditions in the Cairo School, which has inadequate heat for the cold spell Tennessee was experiencing during our trip.


Aviva Kempner and Chris Conder lining up a shot in the Cairo School
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

At the Cairo School we filmed 5 individual interviews with alumni and some group conversations. Interview topics ranged from everyday life at the school (cooking meals, playing sports and the school’s “privies”) to their childhood understanding of segregation and the struggles they went through to gain an education in a society that openly discriminated against African Americans. Many of the alumni mentioned that the entire Cairo community pitched in to support the school any way they could, and they all spoke fondly of their teacher, Professor Brinkley, who showed an uncommon dedication to his students and would often buy extra milk for students who could not afford it. His own children, including Frank who we interviewed, all became educators.


Aviva Kempner speaking the Cairo School alumni about our documentary project
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

In addition to filming the Cairo School alumni, we spent the better part of 3 days poring over the documents and photos that make up the Julius Rosenwald Fund Papers in the Special Collections section of Fisk’s Franklin Library. We found some great photos, including one of Julius Rosenwald with some children in front of a Rosenwald School. We plan to share it as soon as we secure permission. We couldn’t have done it without the help of Special Collections Librarian Aisha Johnson, and we’re very grateful to her. Ms. Johnson, who’s studying the Rosenwald Fund’s lesser-known library-building program, informed us that the Rosenwald Fund Papers are not only the biggest collection at Fisk’s library but also its most requested. Regular readers of our blog will know that we often link to Fisk’s outstanding Rosenwald Schools database, an online catalogue of construction information, funding totals, dates and images of virtually every Rosenwald School constructed under the Fund’s school-building program. It’s an easy to use database that should be stop number one for anyone looking into the history of a specific Rosenwald School.


Aviva Kempner with Aisha Johnson, just before Ms. Johnson’s interview
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

Along with Ms. Johnson, we also filmed interviews with the Dean of Fisk’s Franklin Library, Dr. Jessie Carney Smith, archivist volunteer Michael A. Powell, Fisk professor Dr. Reavis Mitchell and Middle Tennessee State University’s Dr. Mary Hoffschwelle, who has written a wonderfully well-researched and informative study of the school-building program called The Rosenwald Schools of the American South. Between visits to the library, we also got a chance to tour a bit of the historic Fisk campus. While looking at the 1873-built Jubilee Hall, we started talking to a student who turned out to be an official campus tour guide, and she gave us a little of the history of the building. While the all-female dorm’s “courting room” is no longer used for that purpose, the residents of Jubilee Hall still do keep a curfew.


Entrance to Jubilee Hall
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

The centerpiece of Fisk’s campus is Cravath Hall, which houses a beautiful and renowned collection of permanent murals by the great artist (and Rosenwald fellow) Aaron Douglas. Today the former library is used as the university’s administration building, but we were able to walk in and view the lovely Douglas murals in the old card catalogue room.


Aaron Douglas mural above built-in card catalogue
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

All in all, a great trip to Tennessee. It was made even better when we found a great Jewish deli right behind our hotel.


Noshville, on Broadway in Nashville’s West End
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

By Aviva Kempner and Michael Rose