Interview Shoot in Georgia

I just got back from a wonderful shoot in Valdosta, Georgia.

Barney Rosenwald School
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, December, 2013

The Valdosta, Georgia area was home to at least two Rosenwald Schools. After the Morven Rosenwald School was demolished, alumni of both Morven and the Barney Rosenwald School, joined together to restore the Barney School. While in Valdosta, I interviewed seven of these local residents who graduated from the schools and who are working together to save Barney from decay: Barbara and Gerald Golden, Delois Baker, Evelyn Morrison, Jerry Gilbert, Jonathan Smallwood and Lillie Pearl Thompson. Many thanks to our Valdosta interviewees for sharing their stories! Special thanks to the Goldens and the others for their hard work in bringing the school back to life and the warm memories of being educated there. I am especially grateful to the Goldens for making all the arrangements for me to film.

Aviva Kempner with Gerald Golden
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, December, 2013

I also conducted an interview with Alfred Perkins, author of Edwin Rogers Embree: The Julius Rosenwald Fund, Foundation Philanthropy, and American Race Relations, who was gracious enough to travel to southern Georgia from his home in Florida in order to meet me. In his interview, Perkins did a great job bridging the gap between the two most salient Rosenwald Fund projects, the school-building program and the fellowship program. The Fund’s decision in the late 1920s to discontinue the school-building program was due to new Fund president Edwin Embree and Julius Rosenwald’s shared belief that the program had run its course as a demonstration of what the states could be doing for rural black education. From then on, it would be up to state governments to provide educational facilities for their residents, while the Rosenwald Fund could devote its efforts to improving education itself and to a magnanimous grant program for budding artists, writers and scholars.

It was not that all the needs had been met, but that Embree’s understanding of foundation work was to start the ball rolling, so to speak, to get an innovation well-established, but not to continue to fund it. In the case of the school-building program, the key purpose was to change the consciousness of public officials in the South so that they recognized that they had an obligation to provide adequate education for all the citizens, including the black population of the South.

Perkins also related the story of the very first Rosenwald grant recipient: James Weldon Johnson, who also wrote the “Negro National Anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” After lobbying for increased pay for South Carolina teachers, Embree planned a new project with the then head of the NAACP, Johnson. Some people may think Johnson received the first Rosenwald grant as a kind of reward for his role in the formation of the program, but Perkins argued that it was more due to two other reasons:

Having such a prestigious person receive the award gave it a kind of luster that otherwise it might not have had from the outset. The other consideration is that Mr. Johnson had some quite elaborate projects in mind to carry out. He used that period to write the first history of Harlem. He had in mind creating a kind of oratorio based on God’s Trombones. He wanted to write [and publish] some poems and there were several others significant projects that recommended him as the first recipient of an award.

Alfred Perkins, Edwin Embree’s biographer
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, December, 2013

Perkins described the purpose of the Rosenwald Fund fellowship program like this:

There were many creative talents within the black community that were not fully developed, and what was needed for those talents was an opportunity to devote full-time for a year or so to writing a book or doing a series of paintings or completing sculptures. That was the genesis of the Rosenwald program.

Indeed, while heading the Rosenwald Fund, Embree was driven to raise the ceiling for black achievement, taking a cue from W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of the “talented tenth.” Along with the fellowship program, Embree engineered a deal with University of Chicago that led to the hiring of Allison Davis, the first black faculty member at a historically white university. Likewise, Embree convinced Harold Ickes (Secretary of the Interior under Franklin Roosevelt) to take on a staff member to act as a liaison for the African American community and the White House, with the Rosenwald Fund paying his salary. Although the first man to take this position, Clark Foreman, was white, he was quickly replaced with Robert C. Weaver, an African American economist. Under Embree’s guidance, the Rosenwald Fund successfully pushed for the development of a “black cabinet” during FDR’s administration.

The Rosenwald Fund under Embree became a great supporter of higher education for African Americans. Perhaps most importantly, Embree engineered the formation of Dillard University, the first major black institution of higher education in New Orleans, through the consolidation of the two smaller schools. In its early years, Dillard was staffed and administrated mainly by Rosenwald Fund figures like Horace Mann Bond, Will Alexander and Edgar Stern (son-in-law of Julius Rosenwald). In the Fund’s later years, it became more difficult to give direct financial support to black higher education, but Embree’s creativity and energy continued to show through. Unable to send money directly to Tuskegee Institute to build Moton Field (the airfield where the famous Tuskegee Airmen trained) Embree brokered a loan to the college from the Rosenwald Fund that allowed the airfield to be built.

Along with Johnson, Perkins also talked about the very last Rosenwald fellow: Pearl Primus, a dancer and anthropologist who was born in Trinidad. Ms. Primus performed at the June 4th, 1948 closing ceremony for the Rosenwald Fund at the Stevens Hotel in Chicago. Although she had been turned down for a Rosenwald grant in the past, Perkins explained that “her performance was so captivating on this occasion that after the ceremony, the selection committee met again and decided to award her a Rosenwald fellowship – the last one.”

Primus used her grant to study dance in Africa. She received a $4,000 grant (one of the largest given by the Rosenwald fellowship program) and departed in December of 1948. Typical of the open-ended nature of Rosenwald grants, she told the New York Amsterdam News that her only assignment had been to “go to the parts of Africa where I could find material not only to enrich our theatre but to add to our knowledge of people little understood.” In addition to enriching Primus’s dancing skills, her research of African indigenous dance styles made her a pioneering dance scholar. She shared her discoveries during her trip via dispatches to American newspapers (like the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American) and later, with her many students over the years after she became a university instructor.

Update: December 24, 2013. Clarification of Ickes’ first Rosenwald-funded black staff member, Robert C. Weaver.

My trip to Chicago

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Chicago and met with some fascinating people in connection with my upcoming film, The Rosenwald Schools.

First, I visited Chicago Sinai Congregation, where Julius Rosenwald worshiped in the early twentieth century. In Rosenwald’s day, the congregation was located on the south side of the city – today, it’s located in a modern building in the busy near north side. I met with Rabbi David Levinsky, who shared with me some stories about Rabbi Emil Hirsch, Rosenwald’s rabbi who so inspired him to dedicate himself to social justice.

Display at Chicago Sinai Congregation
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, Nov 2013

Next I visited the Standard Club to meet with its president Alison Pure-Slovin about shooting there in the future. Rosenwald was a member of this prestigious Jewish club and there’s a wonderful painting of him in the 2nd floor library. Slovin is the Midwest Region Director of the Wiesenthal Center.

Peter Ascoli and Aviva Kempner in front of Rosenwald’s portrait at the Standard Club
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, Nov 2013

I also met with the dynamite Marilyn Katz, who was the publicist for Peter Ascoli’s book on his grandfather Julius Rosenwald. She has been a great fundraising resource as we attempt to finish the film.

Peter Ascoli (Rosenwald’s grandson) and I went to lunch at the East Bank Club, founded by Daniel Levin, a contributor to the film. Mr. Levin’s son Josh took his future wife Debra on an unusual first date. Knowing that she had written her master’s thesis on Julius Rosenwald, Josh took her to various sites around Chicago related to Rosenwald’s life: his Kenwood home, the Sears plant he built on the west side and even his grave in Rosehill Cemetery. It was good to see Dan briefly and the meal was fantastic.

Peter Ascoli and Aviva Kempner at the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, Nov 2013

Next I met with 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell and Robert Charles of Strategic Precision Management, Inc. Charles is a consultant on the development team that’s rehabilitating the Rosenwald Apartments and Dowell has spearheaded the preservation effort. She is committed to preserving the glorious legacy of the original building. Together we visited the Rosenwald Apartments (AKA Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments) building site. Since we last filmed there a couple years ago the brush has been cleared. Most importantly the building is being restored to its original glory, including elevators and housing for hundreds. I ate lunch with Mr. Charles and Ms. Dowell at a nearby restaurant called Pearl’s, my favorite soul food place in Chicago.

Pearl’s Place, Chicago
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, Nov 2013

At the Jewish Federation of Chicago, I met with Steven Nasitir, head of the JUF, about their annual Julius Rosenwald Memorial Award, which is given to an inspiring leader in the community each year. Nasatir was the proud recipient in 2011.

The Julius Rosenwald Memorial Award along with a list of past winners
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, Nov 2013

Mr. Nasatir is proud of Rosenwald’s leadership at the Federation. Rosenwald was the first president of the Associated Jewish Charities, which brought together the entire Jewish community of Chicago into an organization that would later become the JUF. This accomplishment will be addressed in the film.

Julius Rosenwald’s portrait at the JUF/JF
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, Nov 2013

Lovely couple Don and Isabel Stewart put on a wonderful fundraiser for the film, generously opening their home for us. I interviewed Don a couple of years ago for the film about the Wabash YMCA and Rosenwald’s generosity. Stewart, who has headed Spelman College and the Chicago Community Trust, knows the importance of Rosenwald’s generosity.

Don Stewart, Peter Ascoli, Aviva Kempner and Isabel Stewart
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, Nov 2013

As with the other Ciesla Foundation films these parlour parties are a great opportunity to show people the work in progress and gain support for funding to finish the film. I am so grateful to the Stewarts for a memorable evening.

Lauranita Dugas, Aviva Kempner and Don Stewart
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, Nov 2013

Aviva Kempner introducing the work in progress version of the film
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, Nov 2013

Also on my trip, I did a pre-interview with 90 year old Bill Buckner. Mr. Buckner is part of the generation of Southerners educated in the Rosenwald Schools. Buckner has warm memories of attending a Rosenwald School just outside of McGehee, Arkansas before he came to Chicago as part of the great migration. I’m planning to film him when I return to Chicago.

I also had dinner with Tamara, Michael and Charlotte Newberger who have become friends and help me in figuring out strategy for my filmmaking and fundraising.

Before I left town, I stopped at the White Sox stadium to meet with Joe Black’s daughter, Martha Jo Black. Martha is part of the White Sox organization and is planning to publish a book about her father, the pioneering African American pitcher Joe Black. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf is included in the new DVD of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (available here) and has a great story to tell about Hank Greenberg.

By Aviva Kempner

My Trip to Chicago

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Chicago and met with some fascinating people in connection with my upcoming film, The Rosenwald Schools.

First, I visited Chicago Sinai Congregation, where Julius Rosenwald worshiped in the early twentieth century. In Rosenwald’s day, the congregation was located on the south side of the city – today, it’s located in a modern building in the busy near north side. I met with Rabbi David Levinsky, who shared with me some stories about Rabbi Emil Hirsch, Rosenwald’s rabbi who so inspired him to dedicate himself to social justice.

Display at Chicago Sinai Congregation
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, Nov 2013

Bill Cosby supports Thurgood Marshall College Fund

Old time TV fans are thrilled with the news that Dr. Huxtable, AKA Bill Cosby, is plotting a return to television. We can only speculate that an irritable and loveable grandfather character is in the works. And admirers can watch his new act starting on Comedy Central this past weekend.

Lucky for some of us in Washington, DC we saw him recently in person as the Master of Ceremonies at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s 25th Awards Gala. Dr. Bill Cosby at 76 was in perfect form as the hilarious MC for this worthy organization.

In August of this year, the head of the Fund, Johnny Taylor, participated with me on the education panel at “Reflections on Jewish and African American Civil Rights Alliances,” a conference co-sponsored by the Ciesla Foundation.

Johnny Taylor and Bill Cosby at the TMCF Gala

In a traditional vaudeville-like bit, Cosby set up the Fund’s staff person, budding actor Christopher Lopez, as his straight man. Lopez, thinking he was just handing the comedian notes on the script backstage, found himself right next to Cosby onstage and answering his comic questions. Just like in the old days of comedy, the two entertained the jam-packed audience with their exchanges.

Lopez described how the “entire night was unscripted.” He said “my role was to be the innocent, sweet handler/stage manager (this is why in the beginning of the night, I came out with my active headset on) and he said he will be Bill Cosby.” Cosby’s concept worked and a star was born.

The organization itself supports rising stars. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund offers African American students merit and need-based scholarships to attend public Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). TMCF has made a huge difference providing scholarships to needy students since 1987.

Remember the Rosenwald Fund also supported such HBCU institutions like Tuskegee, Fisk and Dillard.

Especially gratifying to see were the young students dressed to the nines and sprinkled at tables throughout the Washington Hilton Hall. Two gave moving testimonies of how important their scholarships were to them.

Civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis was also there signing autographs in his latest book, graphic novel March. An extra special treat was a free copy of his book as well as a big chocolate kiss as door prizes. Soviet expert Susan Eisenhower was also in attendance.

Also speaking was the tiara wearing, gorgeous new Miss America, Nina Davuluri, who plans to attend medical school after her reign. She admitted to entering the contest because there was a scholarship that comes along with the crown. The first Indian American to win the beauty contest, Davuluri is destined for a great future.

In a scene right out of another classic TV favorite, The Millionaire, Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup and Chairman of TMCF’s board, announced during the dinner a grant of one million dollars to the organization. He explained that it was his wife Susan who impressed upon him the need to give generously to the scholarship fund. This kind of spontaneous giving makes for many future Cinderella college tales and reminds us of Julius Rosenwald’s giving.

The Fund’s President Johnny Taylor was beaming from the dais. He described why Cosby was the perfect master of ceremonies. “Dr. Cosby’s commitment to higher education generally, and HBCUs in particular, is unmatched. He and his straight man, Christopher Lopez (a former TMCF Leadership Institute Scholar), entertained the crowd and helped us raise $3.8 million to support publicly-supported HBCUs and their deserving Student Scholars.”

Washington attorney and film producer Thomas Hart, the Director of Strategic Planning for TMCF, has introduced a new initiative of a bilateral student exchange program with Israel. Hart explains how “the bilateral student and faculty exchange will allow a deeper understanding of cultural differences in an environment that fosters leadership skills in diplomacy and public policy. In the long run, this exchange will contribute to the improvement of the relationship between the United States and Israel.” Again reminiscent of the great African American and Jewish alliance during Rosenwald’s time.

Jennifer Holliday, famous for her role in Dreamgirls, sang to the crowd. An extra high note treat was a local Wilson High School junior, Paris McMillian, who also belted out notes. Like an audition in The Voice, she brought the house down for her rendition of the national anthem. Count that as another star is born.

Jennifer Holliday at the TMCF Gala

Beaming at the evening’s success was former board member Noel Hankin, who was a Miller Lite brand manager. He claimed, “We created the Thurgood Marshall College Fund as a way to make education the centerpiece of our community involvement. It is consistent with research confirming that people identify education as the best way for corporations to contribute to their community.”

Cosby was not all laughs as he turned serious at the end. He recalled a story of his son who was cruelly told by a fellow student that he got an A because of “affirmative action.” He challenged the attending students to study hard and make their education years worthy. I am sure they listened.

By Aviva Kempner