New interviews for the Rosenwald Schools – August, 2014

Posted on August 27th, 2014 by

On August 20th, we added a new interview for The Rosenwald Schools with Elsa Smithgall, an expert on Jacob Lawrence, and a follow up interview with Stephanie Deutsch, author of You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South.

First we interviewed Ms. Smithgall, a curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. who is organizing an upcoming exhibition of the complete Migration Series, painted by Jacob Lawrence during his Rosenwald fellowship. It’s rare to see the series all together, because in February of 1942, after being shown at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New York, the 60 panels were divided; half were purchased by the Phillips and half by MoMA. For the upcoming exhibition curated by Ms. Smithgall, the panels will be reunited and the series will be displayed in its entirety at both the Phillips Collection and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


Elsa Smithgall of the Phillips Collection with Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2014

As Smithgall explained, the series, which depicts the epic migration of African Americans to the industrial north in the early 20th century, was divided among even and odd panels for the two galleries. This was done to preserve as much as possible of the narrative thrust of the series’ sequence in both halves of the collection. Adele Rosenwald Levy (daughter of Julius Rosenwald) played in central role in MoMA’s acquisition of half the panels, and she pushed for that half to be the even panels because a certain panel, number 46, spoke to her. The panel depicts the cramped living conditions new migrant workers faced at labor camps, and both Smithgall and our second interviewee Stephanie Deutsch mused on what aspect of the painting elicited such a strong reaction from Levy.

Smithgall also related the remarkable fact that Lawrence, who created an indelible portrait of the South in his Migration Series, had not personally visited the South before painting the series. Although, according to Smithgall, Jacob Lawrence “was aware of the impact of the negative conditions of the South” he hadn’t yet seen it first hand when he captured it in his own “direct and distilled” way in the 60-panel Migration Series. However, Lawrence’s parents had participated in what’s known as the “Great Migration” and he had observed the challenges faced by the new African American population in New York City and his native New Jersey.

Although we did discuss Lawrence’s Migration Series, and especially panel number 46, with our second interviewee, Stephanie Deutsch, we changed gears a little bit to talk about Julius Rosenwald’s school-building program. Rosenwald is best known for his financial contributions to over 5,000 rural schools for African Americans and for his innovative challenge grants that multiplied his investment, but less well known is his personal interest and encouragement of the communities his fund supported. As Stephanie said:

One thing I’m very struck with is that [Rosenwald] made a personal commitment to these schools. He was a very busy man, but he often travelled down south to visit the schools. These schools were all in very rural areas–they’re hard to get to now–so a hundred years ago it was quite a commitment on his part to make a point of going to visit the schools to see the students who studied there, the parents, the community that would gather to welcome him. That was something that impressed Rosenwald very much, that the schools didn’t just benefit the children, they benefited the whole community.

We had Rosenwald’s journeys south in mind on Saturday when we visited, along with Stephanie, a Rosenwald School on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Although today the journey is not as treacherous as it was 100 years ago, it was a long trip from Washington, and it reminded us how remote many of these schools were, especially the ones built in tiny rural communities like San Domingo, Maryland. This trip will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.