Works by Rosenwald fellows on display in New York gallery

Earlier this year, we covered an exhibition by the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York here on our blog because it featured the early work of some Rosenwald fellows. Their current exhibition, “Abstract Expressionism, In Context: Seymour Lipton,” shows Lipton’s sculptures in the context of his contemporaries, including two Rosenwald fellows: Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff.

Both Alston and Woodruff received consecutive Rosenwald fellowships in the early 1940s; Alston in 1940 and 1941 and Woodruff in 1943 and 1944. The Rosenfeld Gallery has once again graciously posted high quality images of the works in the exhibition on their website, so make sure to check out this oil painting by Alston, painted during his second Rosenwald fellowship, and this untitled watercolor by Woodruff from the year after his second Rosenwald grant.

“Abstract Expressionism, In Context” will be on display at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery until August 2nd.

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.

Aviva setting up a shot with a crew member
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 for a book about WHAT, 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

Gordon Parks’ “Segregation Series”

’42 Rosenwald fellow Gordon Parks has had his photography featured in the New York Times online “Lens” section a couple times recently, following the surprising discovery of over 70 color transparencies by the Gordon Parks Foundation showing the daily life of African Americans in mid-1950s Alabama. These photographs comrpise a set that he called the “Segregation Series.” Some of them were published in LIFE Magazine but the complete set of originals was thought to be lost until now.

The latest Lens blog post tells about Joanne Wilson, who was the subject of an iconic photo by Parks that showed her standing in front of the prominently marked “Colored Entrance” to an Alabama movie theater with her niece. In contrast to the more commonly seen photographs highlighting Jim Crow injustices, which were typically black and white and showed overt oppression, this beautifully colored image shows the “prosaic” side of life under segregation. Ms. Wilson was recently honored at the Gordon Parks Foundation Awards Dinner.

Another of Parks’ subjects in the “Segregation Series,” Allie Lee and Willie Causey, were strongly censured and even threatened by their white neighbors for expressing pro-integration sentiments in the LIFE article. Both ended up losing their livelihoods and were forced to move away from their hometown. A followup article in LIFE Magazine, viewable here thanks to Google Books, tells about the intense antagonism in the small community towards the Causeys. It’s worth a read; it paints an extraordinary picture of the dynamics of rural Alabama life during Jim Crow.

Maren Stange on the set
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, June 7, 2013

We caught up with Maren Stange (an expert on social documentary photography and the author of Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks) last Friday (June 7th) in New York to film an interview about Parks’ career. Stange described Parks’ early days in Chicago (during the 1930s) where he caught the eye of the Rosenwald Fund with a provocative exhibition at the South Side Community Art Center that juxtaposed portraits of Chicago high society (both black and white) with gritty photographs of the stark conditions in what was known as the “Black Belt” in Chicago. Parks used the resulting grant from the Rosenwald Fund to go to work as a documentary photographer for Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration in Washington D.C., where he quickly began work on his iconic “Story of Mrs. Ella Watson,” a government charwoman that Parks photographed at her daily activities over the course of a month. Stange summed up Parks’ style and drew a very clear line between his early social realism, his masterful portrait-making (including great photos of Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and his early Chicago patron, Marva Louis), his in-depth stories for LIFE magazine (like the “Segregation Series”) and his later fashion photography (which was the subject of a great Lens post by Deborah Willis back in November).

An image from Gordon Parks’ Ella Watson series
Photo credit: U.S. Farm Security Administration via Library of Congress
(You can view the full series at LOC’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog)

By Michael Rose