Museum of Science and Industry celebrates its own history with a new exhibit

A new exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry commemorates the museum’s 80th anniversary by displaying 80 artifacts that tell the story of the Chicago institution since its opening in 1933. In a previous blog, we told the story of the museum’s inspiration, by Julius Rosenwald and his son William while visiting the industrial museums of Europe, and the building’s transformation from the 1893 World’s Fair to a temporary home for the Field Museum, to an abandoned white elephant on the city’s south side to the beautifully restored and rebuilt Beaux Arts masterpiece that has housed the MSI ever since.

The derelict MSI building after its previous tenant, the Field Museum of Natural History, vacated it around 1920
Photo credit: Field Museum (flickr)

In the Chicago Sun-Times, a longtime volunteer at the museum, who attended its opening in 1933 at the age of 5, reminisced that the only exhibit present for the “soft opening” (as part of the 1933 “Century of Progress” World’s Fair) was the coal mine. The working coal mine, imported from Johnston City in southern Illinois, was part of Rosenwald’s original conception for the museum and remains a popular exhibit to this day.

The historic coal mine exhibit in the Museum of Science and Industry
Photo Credit: Lenny Flank, 2012 (flickr)

Two interviewees from our film, The Rosenwald Schools were on hand for the opening of the exhibit: Julius Rosenwald’s grandson and biographer, Peter Ascoli, and Kathleen McCarthy, director of exhibits and collections at the museum, who we interviewed in December. You can read more about the opening at the Sun-Times.

The Museum of Science and Industry today
Photo Credit: Brent Newhall, 2011 (flickr)

Madam C.J. Walker featured in The Root

In a new profile for The Root, Henry Louis Gates Jr. tells the story of a remarkable early African American entrepreneur, Madam C.J. Walker. Gates says that Walker, who was born into poverty but made a fortune by manufacturing hair care products for African Americans, deserves to be better known. After you read her fascinating story, you’ll be hard pressed to argue.

Walker will be featured in The Rosenwald Schools for her collaboration with Julius Rosenwald to build a YMCA for blacks in her adopted hometown of Indianapolis, a story that Walker’s great-great-granddaughter (and biographer) A’Lelia Bundles recounted for us in an interview a year ago. Rosenwald’s YMCA-building campaign, which resulted in over 20 urban YMCAs, was one of his first philanthropic initiatives in the African American community. Rosenwald offered substantial funding towards the construction of modern buildings for African American YMCAs, but required matching funds to be raised from the local community. Madam Walker rose to the challenge when she donated $1,000 to the Senate Avenue YMCA building fund, the largest single donation made by an African American to a Rosenwald YMCA. The Senate Avenue YMCA was demolished years ago, but many Rosenwald YMCAs are still standing.

Gates talks about Booker T. Washington’s criticisms of Walker’s products (he claimed they promoted white standards of beauty) but suggests the two had more in common than Washington thought. Indeed, after a public clash at the 1912 National Negro Business League convention, the two reconciled and worked towards common causes in both Indianapolis and Tuskegee. Gates describes a photograph, pictured below, of Washington standing with Walker in front of the newly opened Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis that illustrates their mutual respect.

The dedication of Indianapolis’s Rosenwald YMCA, July 1913

New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools

Four new interviewees were added to The Rosenwald Schools on Friday, June 7th. Director Aviva Kempner (working for the first time with our great New York crew, Dan, Seth and Chapin) shot interviews with David Levering Lewis, Hasia Diner, Gara LaMarche and Maren Stange. Below are some excerpts from interviews with the first 3 of them; Stange’s interview is covered in our latest blog post on Gordon Parks.

The crew setting up the shoot
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, June 7, 2013

David Levering Lewis

David Levering Lewis is one of the leading scholars on African American history. He’s also an engaging writer and speaker who manages to keep readers of all kinds interested without sacrificing the complexity of his arguments. Having written an exhaustive two volume biography of W.E.B. Du Bois (who worked closely with the Rosenwald Fund) and an excellent article on the shared struggles and “assimilationist strategies” of African Americans and Jews in the early twentieth century, we were fortunate that Lewis agreed to add his voice to our film. In addition to presenting his thoughts on Du Bois and the Rosenwald Fund, Lewis perfectly summed up Julius Rosenwald’s modesty and legacy of promoting opportunity in this excerpt from his interview:

Julius Rosenwald once said that his own stellar success was ninety-five percent luck, but he must have known that most people were not going to have that kind of luck and they needed a significant grubstake. It seems to me that was the great concept of the Rosenwald Fund: for people who certainly needed a lot of luck, Julius Rosenwald was luck itself. (David Levering Lewis)

Aviva with David Levering Lewis, Du Bois scholar
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, June 7, 2013

Despite his amazing success as president of Sears Roebuck, Rosenwald never saw himself as exceptional, and always maintained that he was merely a competent manager who had been fortunate enough to capitalize on the opportunities presented to him. As such, he saw philanthropy as his duty: he was a trustee of the wealth he had accumulated and he tasked himself with distributing it in such a way that it would most benefit the less fortunate and the oppressed.

Hasia Diner

Dr. Hasia Diner is an expert on the history of Judaism in the USA. The author of In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 and an upcoming chapter on Rosenwald, she made some great contributions to The Rosenwald Schools. In her interview, Diner contextualized key events like the lynching of Leo Frank (which was emblematic of the increase in Southern anti-Semitism that was concurrent with the rise of racial tension under Jim Crow), talked about Rosenwald’s complicated relationship with the Zionists of his day and brought out the intricacies of J.R.’s collaboration with Booker T. Washington. Diner also talked about Julius Rosenwald’s father, Samuel Rosenwald, who worked as a peddler immediately after arriving in Baltimore on a ship from his native Germany. Peddling a variety of goods to farmers and people without regular access to urban centers was a very common profession for Jewish immigrants during the nineteenth century, in spite of the obvious challenges of the job for the newly arrived immigrants that Diner eloquently described:

It was a very unique kind of occupation in as much as it demanded that a brand new immigrant, someone literally off the boat, go home to home, farm to farm, knock on the door and say, in a language he doesn’t know yet, “Good morning, Ma’am. How are you today?” It’s a kind of almost instant immersion into the local culture at an extremely deep level. (Hasia Diner)

Samuel Rosenwald quickly moved up the employment ladder from peddler to managing a series of stores and eventually became the owner of a successful clothing business in Springfield, Illinois. Likewise, his son started near the bottom of the garment trade in New York City, but eventually became president of one of the largest retailers in American history. Diner pointed out that this progression was somewhat paradoxical in light of Rosenwald’s later work. The belief in education as a route to social mobility that so informed Rosenwald’s philanthropy was not germane to his own trajectory, or to his family’s before him. In fact, to his lifelong regret, Rosenwald never completed high school.

Dr. Hasia Diner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, June 7, 2013

Gara LaMarche

Gara LaMarche is the former president and CEO of the Atlantic Philanthropies. As such, he’s done a lot of thinking about philanthropic strategies and he sees Rosenwald as an early innovator in the field, even among the pantheon of better-known philanthropists from the turn of the century (like Rockefeller and Carnegie). LaMarche talked about Rosenwald’s conviction about the importance of a sunset date for his foundation (that is, a pre-determined time before which all its funds would be expended) and “his belief that perpetual foundations would become sclerotic… [straying] far from the donor’s intention,” if they were to become too “comfortable and self-perpetuating.” LaMarche argued that this aggressive approach, the avoidance of perpetual endowments in order to direct the full force of your philanthropic giving towards making a “concentrated impact on… the problems of the day,” was a good model to follow, and has been shared to an extent by modern-day philanthropists like Chuck Feeney.

Aviva with Gara LaMarche
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, June 7, 2013

By Michael Rose

Jewish Cultural Achievement Awards 2013

On June 10th, Aviva Kempner, director of The Rosenwald Schools, attended the 2013 Jewish Cultural Achievement Awards. The Foundation for Jewish Culture puts on the event yearly to honor those who make vital contributions to the richness and relevance of Jewish culture. This year they honored Scott Berrie, Leon Botstein, Michael Chabon, Deborah Dash Moore, and the family behind Russ & Daughters.

Aviva Kempner with fellow awards attendees, June 10, 2013
Photo credit: Foundation for Jewish Culture (flickr)

The Foundation for Jewish Culture is a generous supporter of the Ciesla Foundation and The Rosenwald Schools film production. The Ciesla Foundation recently donated a package to the Foundation’s online auction including DVD copies of all Ciesla productions on DVD (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, and Partisans of Vilna) and a visit to The Rosenwald Schools editing room at Ciesla’s office in Washington, D.C.

Deceased industrial designer was influenced early in life by Sears catalogue

Niels Diffrient, who died of cancer on June 8th, had an obituary published on Sunday in the New York Times. While reading about the remarkable products designed by Diffrient in his long career as an industrial designer, a quote from his wife caught our eye:

“He had two books, the Sears Roebuck catalog and the Bible,” Ms. Hernmarck said of his early childhood. “The Bible didn’t interest him, but the Sears Roebuck catalog — that immediately interested him.

Mr. Diffrient spent hours drawing his own versions of items from the catalog. Two decades later, after Mr. Diffrient had attended art school, he applied his interest in consumer products as an assistant to the architect and designer Eero Saarinen, who hired him to help design chairs for Knoll.

It seems the Sears catalogue sparked the creativity of Mr. Diffrient as a child in much the same way it did for storyteller Harry Crews, who passed away a year ago. The idealism of the catalogue’s designs, as well as its plenitude of products, must have been striking to behold for people who lived in rural areas during the early twentieth century.