Photographs by Rosenwald grantee Marion Palfi displayed in recent Jewish Museum show “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951” that closed on March 25th

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and village leaders) and produced a manuscript about the event entitled There is No More Time, which remains unpublished.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.

By Michael Rose

New life for Rosenwald YMCAs

Celebration marking the laying of the cornerstone of the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City
Photo Credit: Unknown, published in The Outlook, October 28th, 1914

Between 1911 and the time of his death in 1932, Julius Rosenwald provided funding for the construction of African-American YMCAs in 24 cities. Although some have been lost, many have survived the better part of a century since the opening of Rosenwald’s challenge grant program.

The Butler Street YMCA in Atlanta, in operation since 1920
Photo Credit: Rob Dunalewicz, 2012 (flickr)

While African-Americans are no longer restricted from staying in other hotels, the Rosenwald YMCAs can still serve a purpose in their communities. Some of these buildings remain in active use as YMCAs, such as the ones in Atlanta, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Harlem and Chicago. Others have been adapted over the years to meet the changing needs of their communities. Brooklyn’s has become a nursing home, while Toledo’s, Dayton’s and Washington’s have been repurposed as community centers.

The Paseo Boulevard YMCA building in Kansas City, pre-renovation
Photo Credit: Equina27, 2010 (flickr)

Several others have seen more creative reuse. In Kansas City, reuse of the long dormant and increasingly blighted Paseo Boulevard YMCA as an extension of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum will be made possible through a remediation grant from the EPA, a federal grant and a massive fundraising drive in the community. The new facility, known as the Buck O’Neil Research and Education Center, will house museum archives, exhibits, conference facilities and educational areas. The Paseo YMCA is an important historical site for the Negro Leagues, as it was the location in 1920 of the formation of the Negro National League, the first African-American professional baseball league.

Murals outside the new Buck O’Neil Research and Education Center in the former Paseo YMCA
Photo Credit: Pam Morris, 2011 (flickr)

In Los Angeles, the Paul Revere Williams-designed 28th Street YMCA is in the process of being rehabilitated and expanded to provide 50 units of affordable housing to the Central Avenue community. The new building, expected to open in June of 2012, will also provide social services to its tenants and community meeting space. While no longer a YMCA, the building has stayed true to its original goal of providing housing and services to a vulnerable population.

After the YMCA in Dallas closed its Rosenwald-funded building on Flora Street in 1970 to move into a new facility closer to the emerging African-American community in Oak Cliff, the building was intermittently vacant or used as office space until it was purchased in 2002 by the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Thanks to small and large-scale fundraising in the community, the Theatre opened its new space in 2007 after a lengthy rehabilitation of the building.

Rosenwald would likely have approved of the reuse of these structures. Rosenwald’s philosophy of philanthropy, outlined in two popular articles he wrote in 1929 for the Saturday Evening Post and the Atlantic Monthly, stressed the importance of large, flexible gifts as opposed to specific, restricted ones. The YMCAs in their original state as multipurpose community centers and temporary residences epitomize this form of flexible, unconditional philanthropy.

The Rosenwald YMCA on 135th Street in Harlem
Photo Credit: Jeff Dobbins (

Likewise, the creatively repurposed YMCAs are an extension of Rosenwald’s philosophy. The fundraising drives that have made these creative reuse projects possible have come from the same communities Rosenwald’s challenge grants energized into building the YMCAs in the first place. Biographer Peter Ascoli points out that Rosenwald knew that “it was just as likely that the concerns of today would be completely superseded by other concerns in the far distant future,” so reuse of the YMCA buildings fits with his intentions. For example, the revitalization and repurposing of the Harlem YMCA honors Rosenwald’s legacy of philanthropic giving, as it “is known less for its history than for its effort to re-establish itself at the center of the neighborhood” (The New York Times, Oct 25, 2008).

By Michael Rose

The Rosenwald Schools work in progress screens in New York City area film festival

The work in progress version of the upcoming documentary The Rosenwald Schools played on Tuesday, March 20th as part of the 9th Annual JCC Rockland international Film Festival. The screening was followed by a panel discussion featuring the director, Aviva Kempner, two of Julius Rosenwald’s granddaughters, Alice Rosenwald and Elizabeth R. Varet and Doria Hillsman, Communications Chair of the NAACP. Check back to this blog for updates on future screenings.

From left to right: Doria Hillsman, Aviva Kempner and Alice Rosenwald.

Elizabeth Varet with Aviva Kempner.

Rosenwald instrumental in construction of famous 12th Street YMCA in Washington

Before philanthropist Julius Rosenwald provided funding for rural schools for African-Americans, he initiated an equally successful program designed to aid the nation’s growing urban population of African-Americans. In a time when many blacks were migrating to industrial centers, the Young Men’s Christian Association played a valuable role by providing both interim housing for the new population (who were barred from most residential hotels due to segregation) and a community center in which to practice religion and physical fitness.

The Washington D.C. YMCA, located at 1816 12th Street NW, played this role for the vibrant African-American community around nearby U Street. Funding for the 12th Street YMCA was an early model for the kind of “challenge” grants Rosenwald would use to encourage local investment and increase the funding power of his philanthropy. The $100,000 building was funded in four equal parts; a grant from Rosenwald, a grant from John D. Rockefeller Sr., the central YMCA administration and most importantly, a significant contribution of $27,000 from the Washington D.C. black community. Around Christmas of 1911, after President Taft called his attention to the cause, Rosenwald presented the Washington YMCA with a personal gift of $25,000 that allowed the building to be complete and operational by April of 1912.

The 12th Street YMCA, shortly after its opening
Photo credit: Published in The Outlook, October 28th, 1914

Using the Washington YMCA as a model, Rosenwald pledged $25,000 for the construction of similar buildings in any African-American community that could raise the additional funds as Washington’s had. Although these were segregated facilities, the partnership between the black and white communities in building these structures created, for Rosenwald, a “foundation for a better understanding of each other, promising much for the future,” (The Chicago Defender, 1913) and provided much needed service to the communities that housed them.

African-American branches of the YMCA had existed since before the Civil War, but they were often itinerant associations, meeting in temporary locations such as residences or churches. Washington D.C. became the first city to establish a YMCA for African-Americans when Anthony Bowen established the “Colored Young Men’s Christian Association” in 1853. Bowen’s YMCA initially met in his home and later in donated or rented spaces around the city.

As a permanent replacement for these temporary spaces, the modern and well-equipped 12th Street YMCA represented a bold step forward for both the black YMCA and the black community at large. The large building contained dormitories, classrooms, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a barbershop, bowling alleys and a cafeteria. Its striking Renaissance Revival architecture stands out on 12th Street and the fact that it was designed by noted African-American architect and Tuskegee grad William Sidney Pittman made it an inspiring contribution to the community. Over the years, the 12th Street YMCA housed and hosted numerous famous visitors and residents of D.C., including Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston, Charles Drew and Langston Hughes.

 The 12th Street YMCA was the first building to be completed under Rosenwald’s program, but over the next 20 years, Rosenwald would go on to fund 23 similar buildings in black communities around the U.S. (such as Chicago’s Wabash Y). These buildings were invariably spacious, well-built structures that provided an aesthetic and spiritual anchor for the communities that commissioned them. Although some have fallen victim to urban renewal over the years, at least 15 are still standing, some still in use as YMCAs, others restored as community centers, museums, performing arts centers and affordable housing. The 12th Street YMCA was renovated and reopened as the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage in early 2000 and continues to serve as event space and a community center for the U Street area.

The Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage
The Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage
Photo credit: Michael Rose, March, 2012

By Michael Rose

Work in progress of “The Rosenwald Schools” plays to packed house at Pickford Theater

The work in progress of The Rosenwald Schools, the upcoming documentary film by Aviva Kempner, screened for a standing room only crowd at noontime on Tuesday, February 28th, at the Mary Pickford Theater in the Madison Building of the Library of Congress. Ms. Kempner was joined by Stephanie Deutsch (author of the new book You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South) to introduce the film. Many thanks to all who attended and please check back to this blog for updates on future screenings in the Washington D.C. area and elsewhere.