First lady lauds artistic heritage in Harlem

On Tuesday, during the United Nations General Assembly, First Lady Michelle Obama held a luncheon for the spouses of heads of state at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Obama talked about the great artists that had lived and worked in Harlem during the twentieth century, mentioning several Rosenwald fellows including Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas and Zora Neale Hurston. The event brought spouses of world leaders together with area artists, art students and high school students.

Read more at The New York Times.

New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools – D.C. Edition

After filming in Tuskegee we’ve kept up the fast pace of The Rosenwald Schools production schedule by filming 8 more interviews right here in Washington. Read on for pics and interesting tidbits from the two days of interviews shot with two Congressmen, the president of the NAACP, two authors, and a Rosenwald relative, family friend and two fans of the great philanthropist.

Two Congressmen Interviewed

Our first stop on September 10th was the House of Representatives office buildings. After unpacking all of our equipment through the security scanner, we made our way to the office of Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. Mr. Lewis grew up in Alabama and attended the Dunn’s Chapel Elementary School, a Rosenwald School. While Mr. Lewis discussed his harrowing memories of living in the Jim Crow South, the thirst for education by he and his peers and, later, Jewish participation in the Civil Rights movement, we found it interesting that both he and Representative Danny Davis remembered ordering from the Sears Roebuck catalogue as children. In fact, both men talked about ordering live chickens from the catalogue. Mr. Lewis had this to say about Sears:

As a child I remember my parents ordering things from the Sears Roebuck catalogue. This big, thick, heavy book. Some of us called it the ordering book and other of us called it the wish book. We would turn the pages and say “I wish I had this, I wish I had that.” And that book inspired me that I needed to get an education if I wanted certain things. I needed to be prepared; I needed to earn some money to be able to buy.

Aviva Kempner and Congressman John Lewis
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

After Congressman Lewis, we interviewed Congressman Danny Davis of Illinois, whose district includes several Rosenwald-related landmarks in Chicago. Illinois’s 7th Congressional District has within its borders the Rosenwald YMCA on South Wabash Avenue, the massive Sears campus that Rosenwald built on the West Side and the Rosenwald Apartments on the South Side. Mr. Davis mused that during his life he had crossed paths with Sears a remarkable number of times. As Davis put it, from ordering chickens out of the Sears catalogue as a child in Arkansas for a 4-H project, to working at the Sears store as a summer job when he first moved to Chicago, to keeping office space in the old Sears building early in his career as an Illinois Representative, it’s like Sears has been “a part of my life” since childhood. Coincidentally, Davis mentioned that he was about to see the Sears Holdings Associate Gospel Choir perform at a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation on September 19th.

Aviva Kempner and Congressman Danny Davis
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

Davis described Sears as a center of Chicago’s North Lawndale community when he first moved to Chicago as a young man, both figuratively because of its large tower and sprawling campus and economically because so many people from the community. including himself, found work there in various capacities. As you might expect, Davis is also excited about the rehabilitation of a major landmark in another Chicago community, the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments:

It’s kind of a delight that a fellow like Julius Rosenwald saw [overcrowding in Chicago] back then and decided to do something about it in terms of the development of mixed income housing. When I hear people talk about having lived in the big development right on Michigan Avenue and 47th Street [The Rosenwald Apartments], and to know that right now plans are seriously underway for the redevelopment and revitalization of that structure- every time I run into the alderman of that area, Pat Dowell, we never miss having a conversation about it and she’s always smiling.

The Chicago Race Riot of 1919

After Davis, we interviewed Gary Krist, who published City of Scoundrels in 2012, a crackling book about the summer of 1919 in Chicago, a tumultuous but formative time in the city’s history. Krist has written a couple of popular history books and he has a great talent for painting a picture of a fascinating moment in history that is not well-known outside of Chicago. Take his description of the beginning of the 1919 race riot:

Intense competition for jobs and housing was really creating a volatile situation between blacks and whites throughout 1919, and eventually on one of those classic 97 degree summer days, things just exploded. It started with a group of boys from the Black Belt who decided they wanted to go to the beach on this hot Sunday afternoon. They went to this place they called the hot and cold, because the icehouse on the shore released cold water and the brewery on the shore released hot water and it mixed in this place. This was located in a no man’s land between the 25th Street beach, which was called the African American answer to Atlantic City, and the 29th Street beach, which was a de facto white beach.

Beaches were not officially segregated in Chicago at this time, but they were unofficially segregated. It just so happened on this day, several couples, African American couples, had come to the 29th Street beach to forcibly integrate it. They encountered some hostility from the bathers; there was some rock throwing, some shoving. But it might have ended there, if not for these boys who had gotten their raft in the hot and cold and now had drifted down the coast into the waters off the 29th Street beach. A young white man on the shore started throwing rocks at them and unfortunately one of the rocks hit one of the boys and he slid off the raft and ultimately drowned. This proved to be the event that precipitated the violence. Police arrived, shots were fired. It spread throughout the entire south side, and over the next 5 days people were just brutally killing each other in the streets.

The main instigators were the so-called athletic clubs, which were groups of young, usually Irish, white boys, located in the neighborhoods just to the west of the south side. They had been spoiling for a fight all summer long, because of all of these tensions, so they started just arming themselves with knives, with brickbats, bricks, and going around attacking people. They would get into automobiles and drive down State Street and fire at people on the street. They would go to streetcars, climb on top and pull down the trolley assembly so that the streetcar would be immobilized, and then they would take out any black passengers in that car and beat them on the street.

Interestingly, this was one of the first American riots where black people actively fought back, and sometimes, in some instances, were the aggressors. Soon you had black snipers shooting at white rioters from rooftops and windows. Ultimately the scenes played out almost like the war scenes they had just seen in Europe [in World War I] because a lot of the soldiers were among the rioters. It was nightmarish 5 days in Chicago.

Gary Krist and Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

James Jones has written the definitive study of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (Bad Blood, 1993) so we were fortunate to be able to interview him about the Rosenwald Fund’s brief connection to a precursor study. When Edwin Embree took over as head of the Rosenwald Fund, he reoriented its scope somewhat to include more health-related initiatives, one of which was a syphilis treatment program. Because treatment for syphilis at the time was intense and prolonged and because of the inherent difficulties in serving a rural, impoverished population, many doctors had written off treating the African American community as a lost cause despite the shocking prevalence of the disease.

Aviva Kempner and James Jones
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

In 1929, Dr. Jones explained, the Rosenwald Fund organized a syphilis “control demonstration” that consisted of six targeted county treatment programs designed to demonstrate to unmotivated Southern healthcare officials the potential efficacy of syphilis treatment in the African American population. The demonstration was effective, but short-lived, as the Great Depression caused the Fund to withdraw its support prematurely. As Jones put it, while the Rosenwald Fund left the program with regrets because it hadn’t made enough progress combating syphilis in the African American community, the Fund “came out smelling like roses” in regards to the later, infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Unlike the Rosenwald Fund’s anti-syphilis endeavor, which was targeted towards immediate treatment of a suffering populace, the later federally-funded Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was non-therapeutic and actually withheld new effective treatments (e.g. penicillin) from its participants in order to study the long-term effects of the disease.

The Sterns

Julius Rosenwald must have been a great father, as it seems each of his children did something remarkable in their own lives to “repair the world,” whether through giving money or personal efforts to worthy causes. Edith Rosenwald, and her husband Edgar Stern, became notable philanthropists in their own right in New Orleans, helping to found Dillard and working to increase voting rights for African Americans. As The Rosenwald Schools is going to primarily be about the life of Rosenwald, stories about the Sterns will probably not play a big part, but they deserve to be better known. Fortunately, we were able to interview Cokie Roberts, who grew up as a family friend of the Sterns. Ms. Roberts spoke highly of the Sterns’ commitment to social justice, and it was fitting that we spoke to her on the anniversary of Edith Stern’s death in 1980. One of the stories Roberts related was about a meeting between 1930 Rosenwald fellow Marian Anderson and the Stern family:

One of [Edith’s] cooks told her that there was a wonderful singer at her church, and so Aunt Edith decided to go and hear the singer. In fact, she was a wonderful singer: her name was Marian Anderson and Aunt Edith decided to have her come to their home. This was 1932; this was really in the dark ages of black-white relations, particularly in a city like New Orleans. And so she decided to not only invite Marian Anderson to sing at her home but also to have her as the guest of honor. But truly that was not done, I mean really not done. Edgar Stern was a little concerned about it, as the story goes, he said to [Edith] “We could lose some friends over this.” And she said “Well then we’ll see who our friends are.”

Cokie Roberts and Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

Anderson’s concert at the Stern’s house apparently went over without major incident, but she continued to face discrimination in concert venues. Most people know the story of her being barred from singing at Constitution Hall (which lead to her iconic 1939 performance in front of the Lincoln Memorial) but it’s less well-known that when she was invited to sing in New Orleans’ Municipal Auditorium a year later, it was the first concert in that venue that allowed black patrons to attend. Even though there was a black singer on stage, the black concert-goers were limited to balcony seating, a segregated arrangement that lead to protests by the NAACP.

Rosenwald and the NAACP

On the topic of the NAACP, our next interviewee was Ben Jealous, current president of the Association. Jealous is an amazing source for the history of the NAACP and a great spokesman for its mission. In his interview, (in addition to discussing life in the Jim Crow South, the Great Migration, “The Crisis” and even Marian Anderson) Jealous echoed some of the points made in the Ciesla Foundation’s recent symposium on the anniversary of the March on Washington.

The NAACP has always been a very black organization, [but] we have always been explicitly a multi-faith, multi-race organization from our very beginning. Jews were active in the NAACP because they were against the racism of the South, but they were also inspired by their fears of what was happening to their own community. And if that could happen to people here based on their color, well, given what was happening to be people based on their faith in Europe, what might happen here soon?

Ben Jealous
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

On a similarly inclusive note, Jealous cleared up a misconception about the origin of the NAACP’s name:

In fact, our name was changed very early on. We were named the National Negro Association in 1909. We became the NAACP in 1910, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. So what happened? Well, some people think that maybe between 1909 and 1910, the word for black people changed. Quite the contrary. At the time, “colored people” meant what people of color means today. It was a much broader category than “Negro,” which just meant black folks.

And so Du Bois comes into a meeting in 1910 and he says, “We have to change our name.” Think about how the other founders must have felt. “Our organization is a year old. We have to do a whole lot of things. One thing we don’t have to do is change our name.” But Du Bois walks in and says, “We’re not trying to simply promote black people; we’re not trying to replace white supremacy with black supremacy. We’re trying to equalize humanity; we’re trying to get everybody at the same level. We don’t want to push white people down; we just want to lift everybody else up.” And colored people in that case referred to the everybody else.

Other interviews

Other interviewees included David Deutsch and Debra and Joshua Levin. Deutsch is Julius Rosenwald’s great-grandson, but he was surprised to learn later in life that his grandmother Adele Rosenwald Levy, who he had spent Thanksgivings with as a child, was a remarkable philanthropist and art collector who had the foresight in 1941 to acquire Jacob Lawrence’s amazing Great Migration series for the Museum of Modern Art.

David Deutsch and Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

Debra and Joshua Levin, who are now married, told us a charming story about their unusual first date. Debra had written a master’s thesis on the work of Julius Rosenwald, so Josh had the idea to take her around to various Rosenwald-related sites in Chicago, such as the Sears plant on Homan Avenue, the Rosenwald Apartments and even his grave in Rosehill Cemetery.

Debra Fried Levin and Joshua Levin
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

Thanks to all our interviewees for taking the time to add your voice to The Rosenwald Schools.

New Interviews for The Rosenwald Schools – Tuskegee Edition

On August 22nd and 23rd, Aviva Kempner, director of The Rosenwald Schools traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama to film nine interviews with experts on a variety of topics related to Julius Rosenwald, the Rosenwald Fund, Booker T. Washington and, last but not least, Tuskegee University itself.

We recently finished processing the 5+ hours of footage Aviva and the Alabama crew shot. Below you’ll find some interesting excerpts from the interviews along with photos from the shoot.

The Interviewees

Aviva Kempner and Shirley Baxter, (National Park Service Ranger)
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

The first two interviews of the day were shot in Booker T. Washington’s study in the historic home, known as “The Oaks,” that was built for him on Tuskegee’s campus. Shirley Baxter of the National Park Service introduced us to The Oaks. With its Victorian details and unusual features (a dry sauna, for example, which Washington requested after visiting Europe) the house was not typical of the Tuskegee area at the time it was built and, interestingly, it was the first building in the area with electricity. While some have criticized it for being opulent and out of place, designing and building it allowed students to study valuable architecture and construction techniques. It also served as a showpiece to the northern philanthropists Washington would entertain at Tuskegee (such as Julius Rosenwald, who stayed there several times). Both Baxter and Dana Chandler, Tuskegee University’s Archivist, described the parades, choir performances and dinners that greeted Rosenwald and his guests when they visited Tuskegee. According to Dana Chandler, while the dinners were designed to impress out of town guests, for someone like Rosenwald, who had spent his entire life in the North, they offered a real opportunity to experience another culture.

[The Oaks was] classy, but not over the top. The people that would come down with Julius Rosenwald would be treated to the local cuisine. They would eat turnip greens; they would eat grits: you know, the local foods. And from what I understand, many of them went back to their homes with a better appreciation of what we had here.

In addition to building the house, Tuskegee students staffed and even grew the food for these dinners. Washington, Baxter noted, was an avid gardener when he was not traveling, rising at 5:30 in the morning to feed his chickens and tend to his garden behind The Oaks.

Booker T. Washington feeding his chickens at The Oaks
Photo credit: Library of Congress, unknown date

Later that day, Aviva stopped by the Shiloh School to interview Edith Powell. The Shiloh School is a Rosenwald School nearby Tuskegee, and was the 2nd school built in a community that housed one of the original pilot schools of the Rosenwald School building program. Ms. Powell has been active in the school’s restoration for years, and Shiloh School stands among the finest examples of restored Rosenwald Schools in the country. Ms. Powell described the restoration process and also spoke about what the school meant for Notasulga, Alabama:

In the past, the school represented a way for children to get a quality education. Before this school was built in this area, [education for African Americans] was not of a level that could even compare to the whites. This school was state of the art and it represented the will of the community and the parents to have their children get a quality education at whatever cost. And they are the ones who raised the money.

The Shiloh Rosenwald School
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Along with The Oaks, there’s another National Park site in Tuskegee with a Rosenwald connection. In 1941, nine years after Rosenwald’s death, new Rosenwald Fund board member Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee in support of the nascent flight-training program and took a test flight with a black pilot (Charles Alfred Anderson) to prove to the rest of the country that black aviators were ready and able to serve in the military. Roosevelt’s visit to Tuskegee is a great story (that you can read more about in a previous blog post) and it resulted in the Rosenwald Fund giving a loan of $175,000 for the construction of an airfield and basic training facility called Moton Field that still stands today. Park Ranger Robert Stewart told us that around 1,000 pilots trained at Moton Field, almost half of which saw overseas action in World War II in places like Morocco, Tunisia and Sicily. We filmed Mr. Stewart in front of the very airplane (a J-3 Piper Cub) that Roosevelt and Anderson went up in back in 1941 (the plane is also visible below). Stewart talked about the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen during the war, but he also stressed the way the program impacted the lives of pilots after the war:

When I think about what this site personally means to me, I think about all the men who came here that learned how to fly that went overseas to fight against fascism and then came back home and fought against racism. Many of the Tuskegee Airmen, when they went overseas and they had a chance to fly and defend their country, had their eyes opened. Because of the things they were taught here, they went off and helped to start what we know as the Civil Rights movement.

Aviva Kempner, Robert Stewart and another NPS Park Ranger at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Anyone who visits or attends Tuskegee University cannot help but experience the work of one of its important, but less well known ‘founding fathers’. Aviva interviewed Dr. Richard Dozier, Dean Emeritus of the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science, about the Tuskegee architecture school’s namesake. In 1892, Booker T. Washington recruited Robert Taylor, the first black graduate from MIT in architecture to establish an architecture school that could design and produce all the necessary buildings for Tuskegee’s future campus. It’s amazing that Taylor was able to train his students not only to design and build each campus building from scratch, but also to use whatever local materials that were available or could be created (such as bricks). Of course, one of Taylor’s most important legacies is his impact on the design of many of the Rosenwald Schools. The schools were frequently built according to a design Taylor invented that maximized natural light and usable space in small (by modern standards) floorplans. Dr. Dozier made an interesting point about this in his interview:

We find that Taylor was responsible for making a good many of those decisions that we call “green architecture” long before we arrived here today. The ventilation, the orientation of the building on the site and also the utilization of the space. In hot humid weather [Taylor and his students] were able to design buildings that you could open the windows, you could raise the ceilings, let the air flow through. The rooms were flexible. They didn’t have that much electricity so they had to provide light. [Tuskegee] had a very practical architecture – this is all green architecture and this is all avant-garde of architecture.

Robert R. Taylor, 1906
Photo credit: Library of Congress (not online)

Other interviewees included Gilbert Rochon, president of Tuskegee University and his wife Patricia Saul Rochon. Dr. Rochon spoke of the amazing legacy Booker T. Washington left at Tuskegee and talked about what a daunting task it must have been for Washington to build the campus from the ground up:

It was no mean feat for Booker T. Washington, with only $2,000 and at the time no campus, no faculty, no students, to get this place established. Notwithstanding that, it had to come to pass within a city that was very much segregated. In order for Tuskegee to survive it had to provide everything; it had to be a world unto itself. They produced their own food, they raised their own animals, they had their own mortuary, they established a bank; they established everything that was needed in order to be a self-sufficient town. There was a railroad that came through and I’m told that it was the only railroad where there was a black conductor.

Dr. Gilbert Rochon, president of Tuskegee University
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Patricia Rochon told us about the less well-known contributions of Washington’s three wives to life at Tuskegee. Rochon especially stressed the role of Margaret Murray Washington in the early days of Tuskegee, explaining that she had the same clarity of vision as Booker Washington and that she would act in an administrative role on his behalf during the many times when he was away speaking or fundraising. We also interviewed Dr. Kenneth Hamilton of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, author of an upcoming book that reorients the legacy of Booker T. Washington in the history of racial progress in the United States. Dr. Hamilton defended Booker T. Washington from the common latter-day criticisms of accommodationism by emphasizing his passionate pursuit of economic justice.

Aviva Kempner and Dr. Kenneth Hamilton
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Many thanks to these wonderful interviewees for giving their time and knowledge to our project.