Upcoming documentary to highlight little known ‘Rosenwald Schools’

By Cindy Sher, JUF News

The iconic Chicago Jewish business leader and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald should be a household name for all his good deeds—and filmmaker Aviva Kempner is working toward making that happen.

Earlier this summer, Kempner traveled to Chicago to get the word out and raise funds for her upcoming film documentary with the working title The Rosenwald Schools, which is being created under the auspices of The Ciesla Foundation.

Rosenwald is famous for leading Sears, Roebuck, and Company and for his philanthropic accomplishments in the Chicago Jewish community, but less is known about his altruistic work in the South. The film, which Kempner is currently shooting, will chronicle how Rosenwald joined forces with African-American educator Booker T. Washington to build African-American schools in the Deep South during the early part of the 20th century.

“The partnership between Rosenwald and Washington is perhaps the most compelling one of our time,” said Kempner, a Washington D.C.-based Jewish writer, director, and producer. “…The film tells the great story of a Jewish and African-American partnership way before the civil rights era. It is a great Jewish legacy and very much a legacy for Chicago, where Rosenwald was first based.”

Kempner, who created the 1999 film The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, a documentary about the great Jewish baseball slugger, selects film projects that highlight lesser known Jewish heroes, such as Greenberg, TV star Gertrude Berg, and members of the Jewish Nazi resistance. “I make films about under-known Jewish heroes…As the child of a Holocaust survivor, I take it as my life’s task to make documentaries that counter negative stereotypes of Jews and show their heroic acts,” said Kempner, who was born in Berlin after the war before immigrating with her family to the United States.

Now she highlights Rosenwald’s heroism in her new film. Rosenwald was born in 1862 to German Jewish immigrants in Springfield, Ill., down the block from Abraham Lincoln’s home. The son of a clothier, Rosenwald had business acumen that would eventually lead him to a lucrative investment in a fledgling mail order business called Sears and Roebuck, now Sears. He later would climb his way up to become president of the company.

Chicagoan Peter M. Ascoli, Rosenwald’s grandson, has teamed up with Kempner to promote the new film, due out, if funding comes through, late next year. While Ascoli never knew his grandfather, he has spent the last 15 years researching his famous relative. In 2006, Ascoli published the biography, Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of African-American Education in the American South (Indiana University Press). “My mother told me one story about how Rosenwald used to walk his younger children to school,” said Asocili, who teaches non-profit management at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. “They used to walk a block and run a block, and the chauffer, who was driving Rosenwald’s car, would follow alongside so that once Rosenwald dropped off his kids, they could drive out to the Sears plant.”

Influenced by the social gospel of Chicago Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, Rosenwald used his riches to fix the ills in the world, both in the Jewish community and beyond. He served two terms as President of the Federation of Jewish Charities, the forerunner of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. His legacy in the Chicago Jewish community is still recognized through the Julius Rosenwald Memorial Award, the Federation’s highest honor. This month, longtime JUF/JF President Steven B. Nasatir will accept the award at the Jewish Federation’s Annual Meeting. [Turn to p. 16 for details on the upcoming Annual Meeting.]

The book Up From Slavery, a biography of an ex-slave turned revered educator Washington, inspired Rosenwald to empower African-American people to climb their own way out of poverty. While Rosenwald could provide the preliminary financial push, he believed in social responsibility and self-reliance on the part of people he helped.

Rosenwald formed a partnership with Washington to build schools in the Deep South. He established challenge grants, seeded for the creation of more than 5,500 schools—dubbed the “Rosenwald Schools”—for poor, rural African-American children in the southern states at a time when few received public education. From 1915-1932, 660,000 rural, Southern African-American students benefited from the initiative. “Rosenwald Schools,” famous during their heyday, produced ancestors of African-American success stories like Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, and Anita Hill. The project is less famous today because—after Rosenwald died in 1932—the schools stopped bearing his name and funding dried up.

“He was a visionary in his views on race in America,” Ascoli said. “He came to believe that black and white people were equal in this country, and should be treated as equals, a view held by very few white men or women in the early 20th century. His is a story that really needed to be told.”

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner is looking for stories, archival footage, and photographs from the Rosenwald years. If you can assist her, e-mail her at akempner@aol.com.She will also be in town for the Jewish Federation’s Annual Meeting on Sept. 20, so contact her ahead of time because she will be conducting interviews in person while in town.

The Rosenwald Apartments

The first few decades of the 20th century saw huge numbers of African Americans moved to the Midwest during a period that is now called “The Great Migration.” Midwestern cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and St. Louis saw their black populations swell as more and more black people migrated to them from the South. These cities became the focal point of African American life and the most important of all these cities was Chicago.

Despite the fact that many business in Chicago benefitted from black labor the city was unprepared and in many cases unprepared to house this large population of southern blacks. Many white Chicagoans greeted the huge numbers of southern black people with contempt. Moreover, Chicago simply did not have the housing to accommodate this huge new population.  The overcrowding caused by the huge influx in the black population, many of whom were prevented from getting housing due to the fact Chicago was segregated, and the competition with other ethnic groups in Chicago—the Irish in particular, lead to significant racial tension.  This racial animosity eventually manifested itself in the 1919 Chicago Race Riots, in which nearly 50 people died, hundreds were injured, and perhaps as many as one thousand people were left homeless the vast majority of whom were black.

It was in the context of both the racial tension and the systemic housing crisis faced by the now large black Chicagoans that Julius Rosenwald came up with a plan to develop an apartment building for middle and working class black people. Rosenwald first publicized his idea to build an apartment building for black people in July of 1928. The complex, which was to be called the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, was located in the heart of South Side Chicago in a place known as the “Black Belt.”  The apartment building spanned from 47th to 46th street between Michigan and Wabash Avenues, and was located right in the middle of a vibrant black community.

Julius Rosenwald had his nephew Ernest Grunsfeld design the building. The inspiration for the design of the apartments may have come to Julius Rosenwald during a trip to Vienna inn 1926.  Like the apartments he saw on his trip he decided to build his apartment using the innovative idea of having shops on the first floor and the apartments above them.

The building is an enormous 465,544 square feet, 16,400 of which are commercial space. There were originally 421 apartments that ranged from 3 to 5 rooms. The Rosenwald had more than 1150 windows and more than a half dozen entrances.  There were no elevators (this would become a major problem for future renovations) so residents living at the top had to walk up all 5 floors. In the center of the complex is a large courtyard with garden and a fountain. The total cost of the apartments was 2.7 million dollars.

The decision to build this apartment building was far more than simple altruism. Rosenwald had a friend named Benjamin Rosenthal who was a real estate developer and in 1916 had tried to sell cheap housing to people of different ethnicities, European immigrants principally. Rosenthal had hoped to make a profit off of it despite the cheap rent, and ultimately Julius Rosenwald was convinced to get involved. While the project was a failure, Rosenwald did not abandon the idea that you could provide cheap housing that would be profitable. Rosenwald’s desire for the building to be profitable was not purely for personal gain. He hoped to show other whites that such ventures to help blacks could be provided by the private sector and still be profitable.

The Depression however may have cost Julius Rosenwald the financial side of this vision. Even though rents were already well below market rate they were still too expensive for residents.  Yet soon after the apartment complex opened the property managers were flooded with applicants hoping to move into the apartment complex.  Besides the fact that the apartments were cheap they were also safe. Children played in the courtyards while the parents could shop at the conveniently located storefronts.  The apartment complex was its own little community and became the backbone of the commercial sector on 47th street. In the 30s, 40s, and 50s, the apartment complex became a major nexus of black life and culture in Chicago. Jazz legend Nat King Cole, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, one of the greatest boxers in history Joe Louis and 27time Grammy winner Quincy Jones.

Over the years however the apartment complex came to fall under hard times.  In 1956 the longtime manager Robert Taylor was unable to get enough support to transfer the complex into a cooperative. The fortunes of the building trended steadily southward after that. The building deteriorated and became increasingly dangerous in proceeding decades.  The Urban League, with the help of a developer, rehabilitated the apartments during the 1980s but safety hazards during the 1990s and early 2000s caused the Rosenwald to be vacated.

The building has been empty for over a decade now and the conditions of the dilapidated building have gotten even worse. The vacant Rosenwald apartments have become a hotspot for crime.  There are a number of groups currently trying to renovate the building but the costs of such repairs would be enormous. The cost of repairs might run as high as  $150,000,000. Many of the plans to rehabilitate the Rosenwald have failed because of the high costs and complex challenges of updating such an old building to meet modern disability and city codes.  Some want to demolish the building, but due to its rich history many believe that it would be a travesty to destroy the Rosenwald.

As government housing projects have fallen into disarray and their utility has drawn increasing skepticism and gentrification has forced many middle and working class black people out of their neighborhoods, the Rosenwald apartments take on new significance. The future of the building is unclear buts its legacy is not. For a time it was the heart of one of the most vibrant and talented black communities in world and a number its residents went on to become icons in American culture. The building stands as a testament to Julius Rosenwald’s ambitious altruism and entrepreneurial spirit.

Wabash YMCA

The creation of the Rosenwald Schools was Julius Rosenwald’s most enduring act of philanthropy in the African American community but it was not his first. In 1910, two years before he began working with Booker T. Washington to build black schools in the South, Rosenwald was involved in a variety of efforts to address the issues faced by the black community in Chicago. The construction of the Wabash YMCA in Bronzeville was one earliest of these efforts and one of the most important.

The building of the YMCA occurred during a time in Rosenwald’s life when his concerns about racial injustice were just beginning to coalesce. In 1910 Paul J. Sachs sent Rosenwald copies of Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up From Slavery and John Graham Brook’s An American Citizen: The Life of William H Baldwin Jr.  This proved to be a galvanizing moment in Julius Rosenwald’s life. After reading these books Rosenwald felt compelled to address the social and economic inequalities that plagued African Americans.

When Rosenwald was approached by Wilbur Messer, the general secretary of the Chicago Branch of the YMCA, in 1910 about building a black YMCA Rosenwald was so inspired by these books that he gave a $25,000 donation to help build a YMCA for African Americans in Chicago.  He also promised to give $25,000 to any community in the country that wanted to build a black Y and could raise $75,000. Rosenwald also required that a substantial portion of this money had to come from the black community because he felt that it was important for black people to play an active role in the process; Rosenwald was ideologically opposed to handouts of any kind. Within a year Los, Angeles, Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, Atlanta, Philadelphia and of course Chicago had all met Rosenwald’s demands and were in the process of building black YMCA’s—all of the cities would eventually build the Y’s though it would take some cities more than a decade.

There were two principle reasons why Rosenwald supported the construction of the YMCA. For one, Rosenwald had made contributions to local Hyde Park YMCA for a number of years and had long been a supporter of the organization. Moreover, at this time many if not most YMCAs in both the North and the South were segregated, and there were few recreational and community centers for blacks. Rosenwald realized that the creation of a YMCA for African Americans was a practical way that he could improve the lives of ordinary black Chicagoans.

Despite the fact that the Y was segregated–an integrated YMCA at this point in time probably would have been impossible—Julius Rosenwald truly believed that the Y could be a stepping stone to better relations between blacks and whites. Julius Rosenwald gave a speech during the opening YMCA where he spoke about the importance of overcoming racism.  “The man who hates the black man because he is black has the same spirit as he who hates the poor man because he is poor. It is the spirit of caste. I am the inferior of any many whose rights I trample underfoot.”  A year later he would echo that statement in an article for the YMCA newsletter in which he claimed that the partnership of blacks and whites to build the Y was “evidence that the contact of the white and Negro races will surely lead to a better understanding of both.”

Soon after the Y opened it became essential to the black southerners that came to Chicago during the Great Migration. The Wabash Y was built during the beginning of the First Great Migration where more than one million African Americans left the Jim Crow South to move to the North. These African American migrants settled in urban centers both in the Northeast corridor and in the Midwest. Huge numbers of African Americans ended up in Chicago because of the industrial job opportunities and its location on the railroads  (African American migration can be traced along the railways).  Many white Chicagoans were hostile to blacks—this hostility reaches its apex in the Chicago Race Riots of 1919. In this context the Wabash Y’s most important function was to ease the difficult transition of these newly arrived black migrants.

Over the years the Wabash YMCA became haven for African American Chicagoans and was a vital community institutions. Inside the Y blacks could escape from their hardships and participate in the wide variety of educational and recreational activities. Black patrons attended lectures, bible studies, music performances, and played athletics.  Great athletes such as Joe Louis would train in the YMCA, which provided some of the only athletic facilities to blacks and often was often the center of organized sports.

However the Y was utilized for much more than leisure; the Y provided a number of essential services to the residents of Bronzeville. Many black workers received their paychecks at the Y. There were no hotels in Bronzeville so black visitors and people who did not have any other place to stay were able to take refuge in the Y.  The Y also offered professional training to black migrants, most of who had been involved in agriculture and needed to learn new skills in order to gain employment in industry. During the Chicago Race Riots The Y administered aid and shelter to the black people who were injured or were in need of refuge.

The Wabash Y also became an important part of black intellectual culture in Chicago. It houses a mural painted by William Edouard Scott, one of Chicago’s most important early 20th century black painters.  Moreover it was at this YMCA where Carter G Woodson created the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History: a pioneering organization that studied African American History and the conditions of black people. Woodson and the Association would be instrumental in the creation of Black History Month in 1926.

Like the neighborhood in which it was located the Wabash Y fell under hard times during the 1970s and eventually closed its doors. However in recent years there has been an effort to rebuild and preserve the historic landmark. The community raised over $9,000,000 to reopen the Y and in 2002 it received a National Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Y which Julius Rosenwald helped financed has also been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as one of Chicago’s most important landmarks because of its contribution to the African American community. Nearly 100 years after it was created the YMCA which Rosenwald helped build still serves the purpose Rosenwald intended for it: to improve the lives of both African Americans and the Bronzeville community.