Significant progress was made on the filming of The Rosenwald Schools on December 3rd and 4th when Aviva and her Chicago crew filmed a slew of interviews in the home of Peter Ascoli, grandson of Julius Rosenwald. Our thanks go out to Peter and his wife Lucy for graciously hosting us and our interviewees.
The Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments
Three wonderful individuals who had lived in the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments agreed to speak to us: former Chicago school superintendent Manford Byrd, Ralph Metcalfe Jr. and Lauranita Dugas. Mr. Byrd grew up in southeast Alabama but moved to Chicago in the mid-1950s in search of work. He explained the situation in Chicago at the time, and the significance of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments.
There certainly has been an improvement in housing for African Americans in Chicago, but when I came it was really tight and really restricted. The real estate concerns controlled the movement of blacks very tightly and at many of the places, they cut up the apartments and made kitchenettes of them. We were at that time at the tail-end of another one of the great migrations into the city, so it was just very tight. But here was this oasis, here was this Mecca in the middle of the community… (Manford Byrd)
Byrd had only been living in the city a short time when he heard about “The Rosenwald,” as the apartment building was known around town. He and his fiancee were looking for a place to live and, after months on a waiting list, Byrd was able to secure an apartment in the Rosenwald by persistently reaching out to the building manager, Gwendolyn Minerbrook.
The waiting list at the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments was lengthy because the apartments there were greatly superior to many found in the rest of the community. Indeed, as Ralph Metcalfe Jr., son of Olympian and Congressman Ralph Metcalfe Sr., put it, “In 1946, the Rosenwald building was the place to be.” Metcalfe was born in the Rosenwald Apartments and talked about the celebrities (including his own father) who called it home: Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and more. Above all, he stressed what a great place it was to grow up, a view that was echoed by our next interviewee, Lauranita Dugas.
Dugas is the daughter of Robert Rochon Taylor, who was the first manager of the Rosenwald Apartments and later the chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. Although she was only a child, she was extremely aware of the inner workings of the building and related many details about what the building used to hold: a nursery school, a goldfish pond, a dance studio and many small businesses. Dugas also shared with us a humorous anecdote about Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears Roebuck and namesake of the building:
One day, Mr. Rosenwald came to the building […] and was supervising and observing the painters. Just making conversation, he said, ‘Is that Sears paint?’ The painter didn’t know who he was [and] said, ‘Oh, no. We don’t use the Sears paint. It’s no good. We wouldn’t put it on this fine building.’ Mr. Rosenwald was just absolutely astonished. He went back over to Homan Avenue [Sears headquarters] and said, ‘What kind of paint are we using that’s so cheap that the painters don’t want to put it on?’
Aviva conducting a pre-interview with Lauranita Dugas
Rosenwald’s Impact on Chicago
Next we talked to Dr. Irving Cutler, author of several books, a native of Chicago’s North Lawndale and probably the foremost historian on Jewish Chicago. Cutler ranks Rosenwald the most influential Jewish citizen in the city’s history, largely because of his work to bring together the Eastern European and the German Jews of the city, who at that time were often at odds and lived in separate communities. Rosenwald, whose family was part of the older wave of German Jewish immigration, reached out to the more newly arrived community of Eastern European Jews in Chicago in several ways, but perhaps most visibly by engineering the combination of the two communities into the new amalgamated Jewish Charities of Chicago, which spearheaded support for Jewish relief causes in the wake of World War I.
Dr. Irving Cutler
Rosenwald passed away in 1932, but the Rosenwald Family Association (a philanthropy ran by his children) were able to help a sizable number of their extended family members escape Nazi Germany in the days leading up to World War II. Ursula Jonas, our next interviewee, was one of these fortunate individuals, and she immigrated from Germany with her family in 1936 thanks to the assistance of William and Lessing Rosenwald and the Adler family. Jonas, who still lives in the Chicago area, spoke about the lasting bond she formed with the Adlers during her early years in the USA:
[They] were just the most wonderful, warm, generous, giving people that anyone could have. [They] took care of everything: they set up apartments. […] they helped with jobs for the family, they were there with advice and help. My mother became ill in 1939 after my sister was born [and] they hired someone to stay with us, so we had someone there helping out for actually several years. We attended Thanksgiving gatherings […] and actually later on, when I was ready to go to college, I got some assistance from the Rosenwalds, helping out with my college tuition. (Ursula Jonas)
Ursula Jonas on our set (with Peter Ascoli in the background)
We also interviewed Kathleen McCarthy, director of exhibits and collections at the Museum of Science and Industry, on the topic of Rosenwald’s impact in Chicago. Ms. McCarthy explained the fascinating details of Rosenwald’s inspiration for and founding of the museum, a topic that will be expanded upon in a future post on this blog.
Kenneth Warren, a professor at University of Chicago and an expert on African American literature and Ralph Ellison in particular, brought out the context of the Rosenwald Fund’s philanthropy and talked about the impact of Rosenwald grantees on the broader culture of the Jim Crow South. He also had an interesting rumination on Rosenwald’s legacy, which he said had occurred to him while in a department meeting in the campus’s Rosenwald Hall:
I suspect that it might be true that your Fund sought to achieve a vision that included the idea that the University of Chicago Department of English would include among its faculty African American scholars studying African American literature and that this would be an important part of the [curriculum]. (Dr. Kenneth Warren)
Aviva with Dr. Kenneth Warren
After Dr. Warren, we met with two economists, Daniel Aaronson and Bhash Mazumder, from the Chicago Federal Reserve who have done creative and significant research on the impact of the Rosenwald schools. Aaronson and Mazumder used census and military enlistment records to track the heretofore uncharted effects of Rosenwald schools on Southern communities, and found a wide range of positive effects on communities that built schools with the help of the Rosenwald Fund.
Aviva Kempner with Bhash Mazumder and Daniel Aaronson
Finally, Oyekunle Oyegbemi spoke to us about the compelling connection he feels to the Rosenwald school he attended in Prentiss, Mississippi. The Rosenwald Fund provided funding for the campus’s iconic Rosenwald Hall, a beautiful stone building that had many purposes.
[We] were actually proud of that campus and that particular building, because it was the centerpiece […] and I would later learn that that was one of the larger Rosenwald buildings. All the activities were centered around that building. We would go to Vespers services on Sundays, graduation services, the community would [have] meetings, we would have entertainment there. I was in a little band and we would perform there. Not only that, we had classrooms and a library there and on the lower level, they had the administrative offices. So that building was kind of like a catchall for everything and everything was centered around that building.
Oyegbemi, whose family helped found the school, also worked as a handyman on campus during his time at Prentiss. For Oyegbemi, a native of rural Mississippi, the Rosenwald school was a place of discovery; of art, music and his African ancestry. The school was so important to him that years later, in 1989, upon hearing that it was slated to be closed, Oyegbemi packed up and left his current home and job in Chicago and moved back to Mississippi, where he spent months attempting to save the school. Although he was ultimately unsuccessful at saving the school for its original purpose, the campus is still standing and he hopes one day to be part of a rehabilitation campaign there.
Aviva with Oyekunle Oyegbemi
Many thanks to our fantastic interviewees for relating their fascinating stories and illuminating details about Julius Rosenwald’s life and impact.
Anthropologist, dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham’s most notorious ballet, Southland, opened last weekend at The Newman Center for the Performing Arts, University of Denver. This is the first ever performance in the U.S., over sixty years after Dunham first produced it.
Southland debuted in Chile in 1951 and was immediately subjected to repression efforts by the U.S. State Department. The play dramatically stages the lynching of a black man accused of raping a white woman, and in the anti-Communist fervor of the early 1950s it was considered dangerously subversive by government officials in the U.S. Dunham took the ballet to Paris, where it was also met with U.S. suppression efforts and criticism from the American embassy.
Dunham is often remembered for her roles in Hollywood pictures, but she was a talented anthropologist as well, and she received consecutive Rosenwald grants for anthropological research in 1935 and 1936. Dunham used these grants to travel to Caribbean nations and study indigenous dance forms, research which informed both her choreography and her academic study of the cultural links between African nations and the diaspora. The peripatetic researcher and artist’s first trip abroad was under this Rosenwald fellowship, and she later compiled her research into a Master’s thesis at the University of Chicago.
Constance Valis Hill argued in a 1994 article in Dance Research Journal that Dunham’s Southland was ahead of its time, a work of protest art that may have been received more favorably a decade later during the upheaval of the 1960s. Although the ballet was criticized publicly at the time and caused strife within Dunham’s dance troupe, her artistic and critical vision of the Jim Crow American south is finally getting the treatment it deserves.
Read more about this performance and the history of the ballet at the Denver Post.
Charles H. Houston, a key figure in the history of legal challenges to segregation, also has an interesting connection to the Rosenwald Schools. Houston, who was born in Washington D.C., went on to practice law in the area as well as instruct students such as Thurgood Marshall at Howard Law School. His career as a lawyer spanned the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, and included many important civil rights cases. Kenneth W. Mack’s new book, Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer, gives an excellent background of Houston’s life and accomplishments.
Being a lawyer, Houston focused especially on the integration of the country’s legal system. At this time, segregation in the courts was different than the segregation faced by other professions, like doctors, teachers or small business owners. As W.E.B. Du Bois observed in 1899, since “a lawyer must have co-operation from fellow lawyers and respect and influence in court… prejudice or discrimination of any kind is especially felt in this profession.” Especially in the South, black attorneys were forced to put up with many hurdles and limits set up within the courtroom. In 1933, Houston accepted a case with which he could challenge the segregated Southern court system in Loudoun County, Virginia. In the murder trial of George Crawford, Houston set important precedents for the rights of black attorneys to argue major cases and the importance of black participation in juries.
Although Houston did not live to see the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a project he undertook during the fall of 1934 played a major role in the landmark verdict. During this time, Houston traveled to the South and filmed black schools in order to document the inequalities under Jim Crow segregation. These films (funded by a philanthropic organization out of New York, the Harmon Foundation) went on to be used as a vital exhibit in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 (four years after Houston’s death).
These films are important to our project on Julius Rosenwald for an unlikely reason. While they were meant to demonstrate the failure of school districts to maintain black schools (the intertitles point out that the roofs and windows are in need of repair) they remain as possibly the oldest moving images of Rosenwald Schools. Houston’s footage of what is believed to be the Bethel Grade School in South Carolina will be featured in the upcoming documentary, The Rosenwald Schools, a clip from which can be viewed here:
In addition to breaking down the barriers of segregation in the legal system, Houston was a great believer in the importance of equal educational opportunity. In 1935, he claimed that “Discrimination in education is symbolic of all the more drastic discriminations which Negroes suffer in American life” (quoted in Genna Rae McNeil and A. Leon Higginbotham’s biography, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights). Like Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington before him, Houston fought for equality in education for all.
The Rosenwald Fund continues to live on as Rosenwald Fellowship recipient Marion Palfi’s works were shown in an exhibit on display at the Jewish Museum until March 25th. The exhibit, entitled “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951,” showed work from the famous New York-based social photography group to which Palfi belonged.
The Jewish Museum in Manhattan
Photo Credit: oh_annaluise, 2008 (flickr)
Born in Berlin in 1907, Marion Palfi grew up in a middle class household that encouraged her in various artistic pursuits. While still a teenager, she had a successful career as a performer (dancer, model and actress), but in her early twenties she gave it all up to pursue photography. By the mid-1930s, she owned a photography studio in both Berlin and Amsterdam. However, as World War II escalated, she fled Europe in 1940 to settle in New York City.
Palfi soon found work in a U.S. government war photography studio and began making contacts in the New York art and photography world, including Langston Hughes and Lisette Model (a Photo League member and also a fellow recent Jewish immigrant from Europe). Palfi’s work during this time on minority artists must have impressed the Rosenwald Fund trustees, as they offered her a substantial grant in 1946 that allowed her to take a three-year journey through the American South documenting Jim Crow segregation and racial discrimination.
Some of Palfi’s most memorable work was produced during this period from 1946 to 1949. In addition to documenting everyday life under Jim Crow, she photographed racially-charged subjects such as the Columbians, a white separatist group in Georgia who took sartorial cues from the Nazis and enforced racial segregation with violence. One of Palfi’s most significant projects was a photo documentary of the aftermath of a lynching in Irwinton, Georgia. She gained considerable access to all parts of the community of Irwinton (the Ku Klux Klan, the black community, journalists and village leaders) and produced a manuscript about the event entitled There is No More Time, which remains unpublished.
Two of Palfi’s photos, both of which were likely produced during the time of her Rosenwald grant, were on display until recently in The Jewish Museum’s exhibit about the Photo League. The Photo League was a collective of social documentary photographers (including Palfi) that was active from 1936 to 1951. The first Palfi photo, In the Shadow of the Capitol depicts a street scene in a garbage strewn alley community just blocks from the Capitol building. The second photograph, Wife of the Lynch Victim, is a haunting image of the widow of Caleb Hill Jr., who was taken in 1949 from a jail cell in Irwinton and lynched. The University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography owns a huge collection of Palfi’s work, from before and after her emigration and on a wide variety of subjects, which is accessible online here.
Although Palfi’s story is the best example, there were several other interconnections between Rosenwald Fund recipients and the Photo League. Rosalie Gwathmey of the Photo League was married to Robert Gwathmey, the social realist painter and 1944 Rosenwald Fellowship recipient. Jack Delano of the Photo League encouraged Gordon Parks to apply to the Rosenwald Fund for a grant so that he could join him as a photographer at the Farm Security Administration (Parks became a Rosenwald Fellow in 1942). Also, Gilbert D. Olmstead was a black Pittsburgh-based photographer who received a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1946 and was later associated with several Photo League members, including Weegee.