The Hammerslough building in Manhattan

Click here to read an interesting blog post on the colorful history of the Manhattan building that housed the clothing store of Julius Rosenwald’s uncles, the Hammerslough Brothers, just before the turn of the century. Blogger Tom Miller gives the history of occupants of the building along with an appreciation of its innovative and influential architecture in the section of Manhattan that is known today as SoHo. A young Julius Rosenwald likely worked at this clothing store (which is still standing at 482 Broadway) before he struck out with his own store in downtown Manhattan. Before he bought into Sears Roebuck, Rosenwald also started his own clothing business in Chicago with his cousin called Rosenwald & Weil.

For a photo of the building from the time it was occupied by the Hammerslough Brothers and Collins, Downing & Co., click here (registration required).

“Scottsboro Boys” receive posthumous pardon

According to the New York Times, three of the famous “Scottsboro Boys” recently received official pardons from the state of Alabama, over 80 years after they were wrongfully convicted of rape and sentenced to death. Their trial was an infamous miscarriage of justice and was emblematic of institutionalized racism in the Jim Crow South. Since the defendants have all passed away, pardoning them required writing a new law that allowed for posthumous pardons in cases of “social injustice associated with racial discrimination.” Although it is merely a symbolic gesture, this is an important repudiation of Alabama’s racist history.

The great poet Langston Hughes took an interest in the case in 1931, when he visited the “Scottsboro Boys” on death row in Alabama. At the time, Hughes was on a trip across the South funded by his 1931 Rosenwald grant and inspired by Mary McLeod Bethune, who had encouraged him to spread his poetry to a Southern audience that was largely unfamiliar with his work. On the trip, Hughes visited all the Southern states, reciting and distributing his poetry at various venues, including many historically black colleges. A year later, Hughes would publish Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse, a virulent denunciation of the unjust treatment of the defendants by the Alabama legal system.

This posthumous pardon calls to mind President Clinton’s official apology for the notorious “Tuskegee Syphilis Study”. In his May 1997 apology speech, Clinton said that an official apology was “the first step [in] a commitment to rebuild that broken trust” engendered by the inhumane study. Unlike the recent Scottsboro pardon, four survivors of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, each over 90 years old, attended that apology at the White House.

In other Alabama history-related news…

Those of you who tuned into Jeopardy! last night saw all three contestants unable to come up with the name of the author of Up from Slavery and Tuskegee & Its People. Whatever your opinion of Booker T. Washington’s work (which remains controversial to this day) it’s astounding that three schoolteachers competing in the Jeopardy! Teachers Tournament would be unaware of the most famous book written by the “Wizard of Tuskegee.” Washington is undeniably one of the major figures in African American history and he will play a prominent role in The Rosenwald Schools – one of his most interesting and lesser known projects is the school-building program he devised near the end of his life with Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Fund.

New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools

October brought three great new interviews to The Rosenwald Schools. Read on to get a preview of three D.C.-area residents who will appear in our film: a rabbi, a poet and a curator.

Rabbi David Saperstein

David Saperstein is a lawyer and rabbi, active for decades in the Union for Reform Judaism and on the board of trustees for the NAACP. In his interview, he described the way Julius Rosenwald’s philanthropy adheres to the rich tradition of social justice in Reform Judaism:

Jewish leaders and Rabbis have always spoken out in universal terms, in terms of our obligation to be God’s partners in shaping a better world. So it’s not surprising that Rosenwald was able to deal both internally with Jewish causes of social justice – helping the Jews from Eastern Europe, as one example – but also get involved in universal concerns, working with Jane Addams in Hull House, the NAACP and eventually building this extraordinary set of schools.

Aviva Kempner and David Saperstein
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, October 28, 2013

The first system of universal education, at least for boys, was derived by the rabbis at the beginning of the Common Era, during the Talmudic Era of Rabbinic Judaism, 2,000 years ago. Every Jewish boy, rich and poor alike, not only was entitled to be educated, but it was the obligation of the society to ensure that it would happen. The Talmud says “be sure to educate the children of the poor, for out of them will come our great rabbis.” This was a belief that has been part of the Jewish community for 2,000 years.

Julius Rosenwald, 1917
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing Collection

When the abysmal lack of education for African Americans was brought to Rosenwald’s attention, the recognition that there couldn’t be equality without education transformed his life. And he did one of the most extraordinary acts of social justice in the history of humankind, single-handedly building this network of schools that transformed the history of America, and certainly of African Americans. One of the most extraordinary undertakings in all of human history on social justice [was] building this remarkable network of schools. It transformed the destiny of the African American community, and therefore of America.

E. Ethelbert Miller

E. Ethelbert Miller is a poet and activist living in Washington D.C. He is inspired by Hughes’s poetry and by his commitment to bringing it to new audiences.

Aviva Kempner with E. Ethelbert Miller
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, October 28, 2013

Hughes got two Rosenwald fellowships, in 1931 and in 1941. When he applied to the Rosenwald Fund for a second time, Miller explained, it was at a low point in his career. Having run out of money, he had been forced to sell the rights to his previous books to his publisher, Knopf, for just $400. The Rosenwald money was very timely for Hughes, as Miller pointed out:

Langston saved everything, down to receipts and stuff like that, so we can see he never had a lot of money. I think the worst thing to be is a writer and you have to lose the rights to your work. To me, it’s the equivalent of being like a great jazz musician and you have to pawn your horn. That’s the real part where you have to say, “Okay, how committed am I to this?”

Langston Hughes, 1936 (between his two Rosenwald grants)
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Carl Van Vechten Collection

In 1941, his major work had not even been done yet, [such as] his Montage of a Dream Deferred. A lot of his Simple stories had not been written. But you can see he was at that point where many of us maybe would have given up or lost the rights to our work, our stories. But you see why, when an award does come, it comes at a particular time, like that old TV show The Millionaire, where somebody knocks on your door and gives you this money. And not only are they giving you money, they’re giving you hope and they’re giving you the ability to continue to pursue your dreams.

Philip Brookman

Philip Brookman is the chief curator at Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery. An expert on photography, Brookman knew Gordon Parks personally. On a Rosenwald fellowship in 1942, Parks moved from Chicago to Washington D.C. to shoot photos for the Farm Security Administration, quickly producing what would become perhaps his most iconic photograph, American Gothic.

Washington, D.C. Government charwoman (also known as “American Gothic”)
Photo credit: Gordon Parks, Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection

The story of Parks’ Rosenwald fellowship will be prominent in the film, but Brookman gave us a wide variety of other interesting information on Parks’ life that will be included in the DVD of the film. Brookman discussed the way Parks approached his subjects, a method that began with his very first series of photographs of Ella Watson.

Gordon got to know a lot of the people that he photographed very well. I think that’s one of the things that distinguishes his photography. He really had to know and understand the people he photographed.

Aviva Kempner with Philip Brookman
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, October 28, 2013

One of the people he photographed is Richard Wright. He made a portrait a little bit later that I think focuses on Wright’s face and it puts him in a very modern looking environment. Not an environment that one would think when representing an author who had written so much about coming up from poverty in difficult conditions. Gordon wanted to represent the artist who was Richard Wright and I think he was very good at understanding how to actually convey a sense of who people were. His friendship with Wright had initially inspired him to become a photographer and to represent with images the way that Wright represented with words the kind of experiences they both had had growing up.

Richard Wright, 1943
Photo credit: Gordon Parks, Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection

I think that it was this kind of sensibility that came out of the Rosenwald era that gave artists a way of understanding what the power of their work could be and what it would mean for the world.

Teach For America’s early office space

As an organization committed to ending education inequality in America, Teach for America has spearheaded the modern day efforts to achieve Julius Rosenwald’s dream of a quality education for all Americans. But the connection does not just end with Teach for America and Rosenwald’s parallel missions. The early headquarters of Teach for America coincidentally was housed in the childhood home of Peter Ascoli, Rosenwald’s grandson. The building, located in New York City’s Gramercy Park neighborhood, has certainly seen its fair share of inspirational individuals!