Birth of a Nation mentioned in EW interview

Jeff Labrecque interviews World War Z author Max Brooks in Entertainment Weekly about his new graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters. The new book, about a black infantry unit during World War I, looks great. One moment in the interview caught our eye, in connection to some research we’ve done for The Rosenwald Schools.

You use pop culture from the period as crucial plot elements, including D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a blatantly racist film that reflected attitudes of the time — so much so that Woodrow Wilson screened it at the White House.
I had seen Birth of a Nation in college, and it just blew me away. The movie itself didn’t blow me away; it was the reaction to it. Like you said about Wilson, people loved that movie — white people. That was the Star Wars of its day.

Despite its overtly racist themes and imagery, the release of Birth of a Nation (arguably the first significant feature-length film) was indeed a major event. We learned, however, that in addition to playing to some white viewers’ racism (and even inciting racial violence in some cases), the film also galvanized the nascent NAACP. The film provided them with a nationwide target to organize against and boycott, which helped new organization find its footing and become one of the major advocacy groups for minority rights in American history. We interviewed historian David Levering Lewis about the White House screening of Birth of a Nation and its effect on the NAACP.

You can read the complete interview at Entertainment Weekly.

New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools, March 2014 edition

More lovely interviews for The Rosenwald Schools were filmed earlier this week in Washington D.C. First of the day was Stephanie Meeks, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Ms. Meeks told us about the National Trust’s involvement in Rosenwald School rehabilitation projects across the South, and their goal of restoring 100 of the roughly 800 extant structures in honor of the 100th anniversary of Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington’s school-building program.

Ms. Meeks said that when she initially learned about the tri-fold funding structure of the original Rosenwald Schools, she was “astounded” that the often impoverished local African American residents were expected and able to raise a third of the money necessary to build each school in the program. This matching grant strategy amplified the effect of Rosenwald’s philanthropy dollar for dollar, but it also helped community members get emotionally invested and protective of their community’s new school. Meeks sees a parallel to this in her own experience with Rosenwald School rehabilitation projects of today:

In many ways that same model is being replicated today in the rehabilitation of the Rosenwald Schools. The National Trust is working to provide technical assistance to communities as well as grant funding that we’ve been able to accrue from other philanthropists. And the communities, the students and graduates themselves, are perpetuating this virtuous circle by reaching into their own pockets, putting money forward to help with the rehabilitation costs of some of these buildings. They understand that the preservation and the restoration of the Rosenwald schools is a way of keeping this story alive and continuing to contribute to the community.

Aviva Kempner and Edwin B. Henderson, II
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, March 25, 2014

Next up was Edwin B. Henderson, II, who we met at a panel discussion last month. Mr. Henderson is a historical preservationist living in Falls Church, Virginia. His mission is to preserve the legacy of his grandfather (with whom he shares his name), an early 20th century educator who established the first black athletic league in the District of Columbia. Dr. E.B. Henderson is known for his work in physical education, but as his grandson explained to us, he always had a broader scope for African American achievement:

My grandfather, Dr. E.B. Henderson, his philosophy was that, given equal access for African Americans to physical training and fundamentals of the sports, that they would be equal or superior to their white counterparts. [He] used physical education and athletics as a tool, not in and of itself, but as a way to send qualified African Americans to Northern colleges and debunk the myth of racial inferiority.

E.B. Henderson taught students like Robert Weaver (who went on to become the first African American to serve on a presidential cabinet) and his basketball program in Washington D.C. produced such luminaries as Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing and John Thompson. Henderson’s work was given a boost in 1912 when the Julius Rosenwald-funded 12th Street YMCA opened in the U Street area of Washington, providing a basketball court to a community that was severely lacking in recreational spaces. Having failed to convince the public schools to invest in large gymnasiums for young ballplayers, Dr. Henderson was extremely grateful when the Rosenwald Y was constructed.

A student studyinh in a dorm room at the 12th Street YMCA, circa 1910-1930
Photo credit: Library of Congress via Addison N. Scurlock

We also spoke to Rabbi Howard A. Berman about the Reform synagogue Julius Rosenwald attended in Chicago, which was headed by the dynamic Rabbi Emil Hirsch. Hirsch kept Temple Sinai at the forefront of progressive Judaism by breaking down cultural barriers with other Chicago communities, harshly criticizing racism and experimenting with radical ideas like services on Sunday. By way of explaining just how far ahead of the curve Hirsch, Sinai and Rosenwald were, Berman related this anecdote:

[Rabbi Emil Hirsch] asked Jane Addams to preach the sermon during one of those Sundays [at Sinai]. This was regarded as the first time that a woman–let alone a woman, but a non-Jewish woman–would speak from a Jewish pulpit. Her topic was the moral imperative of birth control for women in the 19th century. This was an unbelievable kind of a combinations of factors. If you wanted to have the perfect storm of shock value, it happened in Sinai Temple sanctuary on that particular Sunday. But that was very much Hirsch’s vision.

Rabbi Howard A. Berman
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, March 25, 2014

Our final interviewee of the day is a Professor of English at the George Washington University in Washington D.C. Lisa Page teaches Langston Hughes’ poetry in her university courses and she graciously related some stories of Hughes’ life during his two Rosenwald Fund fellowships (1931 and 1941).

Aviva Kempner and Lisa Page, March 25, 2014
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, March 25, 2014

Page grew up in Chicago nearby the Museum of Science and Industry, one of the most visible legacies of Julius Rosenwald. Rosenwald paid for the reuse of the historic 1893 World’s Fair building and the new museum, which original bore his name. You can read more about the Museum of Science and Industry’s history on our blog here. Page had some great memories about attending the museum as a child that she shared with us:

The Museum of Science of Industry was our playground, my sister and I, growing up. Every weekend, especially in Chicago in the winter when you can’t be outside it’s so cold. The Museum of Science and Industry was a few blocks away from our house, so every Saturday we headed to the museum of Science and Industry and lived there. We lived inside the human heart, the coalmine. We’d go see the baby chicks. All of these wonderful exhibits that you got to interact with. The whisper gallery. We just went over and over again to these same places. The German submarine, Colleen Moore’s dollhouse. We just lived down there dreaming of shrinking down to size and being able to live in that palace that she put together. It was this wonderful place for us to be.

Chicks hatch every day at the Museum of Science and Industry, showing genetic diversity at work
Photo credit: Lenny Flank (flickr)

Thanks to all our great interviewees!

Research and filming for The Rosenwald Schools in the “Music City”

Last week, the Ciesla Foundation’s Aviva Kempner and Michael Rose took a much-anticipated trip to Nashville to work on The Rosenwald Schools production. The purpose of the trip was bifold. The first was to explore the archives of Fisk, an historically black university that holds the Rosenwald Fund’s papers. After beginning in Tuskegee as a result of Booker T. Washington’s collaboration with Julius Rosenwald, the Fund’s school-building program was headquartered in Nashville for most of its duration. The second purpose was to film the alumni of a very special Rosenwald School located 35 miles northeast of Nashville in Cairo, Tennessee. Local historian Velma Brinkley coordinated our visit with alumni who still live in the area and about 15 former students graciously traveled out to their old school to talk to us on a cold, rainy day in early February.

Alumni gathered in front of the Cairo Rosenwald School
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

One of the best surprises of the trip to Cairo was brought to us by Lester Mae Hill, an aluma of the school. When we first arrived at the Cairo School, Ms. Hill and Ms. Brinkley showed us the school’s collection of historic photographs. In one of the photos (pictured below) Ms. Brinkley pointed out a mostly obscured photograph of Julius Rosenwald hanging above the door. While we have often read of Rosenwald’s portrait hanging in a place of honor in the schools he helped to fund, this was the first photographic evidence we’ve come across.

Students at the Cairo School. Ms. Hill is first on the left.
Photo credit: Cairo School alumni, unknown date

When we showed interest in the portrait of JR, which we didn’t see on the wall, Ms. Hill told us she had it stored in a safe place and immediately ran home to get it. Within a few minutes, she returned with a lovely, large portrait of the Sears president and educational benefactor. Some of her family members had taken the photo when the school was being remodeled and Ms. Hill was pleased to return it to its rightful place above the school’s front door. One former student told us that when he attended the school he was told it was of a benefactor of the school but did not know the name of Julius Rosenwald until recently.

Lester Mae Hill with the Cairo School’s portrait of Mr. Rosenwald
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

For this shoot we worked with a Nashville-based crew, Chris Conder and Steve LePard. Chris and Steve did some great work for us despite the chilly conditions in the Cairo School, which has inadequate heat for the cold spell Tennessee was experiencing during our trip.

Aviva Kempner and Chris Conder lining up a shot in the Cairo School
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

At the Cairo School we filmed 5 individual interviews with alumni and some group conversations. Interview topics ranged from everyday life at the school (cooking meals, playing sports and the school’s “privies”) to their childhood understanding of segregation and the struggles they went through to gain an education in a society that openly discriminated against African Americans. Many of the alumni mentioned that the entire Cairo community pitched in to support the school any way they could, and they all spoke fondly of their teacher, Professor Brinkley, who showed an uncommon dedication to his students and would often buy extra milk for students who could not afford it. His own children, including Frank who we interviewed, all became educators.

Aviva Kempner speaking the Cairo School alumni about our documentary project
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

In addition to filming the Cairo School alumni, we spent the better part of 3 days poring over the documents and photos that make up the Julius Rosenwald Fund Papers in the Special Collections section of Fisk’s Franklin Library. We found some great photos, including one of Julius Rosenwald with some children in front of a Rosenwald School. We plan to share it as soon as we secure permission. We couldn’t have done it without the help of Special Collections Librarian Aisha Johnson, and we’re very grateful to her. Ms. Johnson, who’s studying the Rosenwald Fund’s lesser-known library-building program, informed us that the Rosenwald Fund Papers are not only the biggest collection at Fisk’s library but also its most requested. Regular readers of our blog will know that we often link to Fisk’s outstanding Rosenwald Schools database, an online catalogue of construction information, funding totals, dates and images of virtually every Rosenwald School constructed under the Fund’s school-building program. It’s an easy to use database that should be stop number one for anyone looking into the history of a specific Rosenwald School.

Aviva Kempner with Aisha Johnson, just before Ms. Johnson’s interview
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

Along with Ms. Johnson, we also filmed interviews with the Dean of Fisk’s Franklin Library, Dr. Jessie Carney Smith, archivist volunteer Michael A. Powell, Fisk professor Dr. Reavis Mitchell and Middle Tennessee State University’s Dr. Mary Hoffschwelle, who has written a wonderfully well-researched and informative study of the school-building program called The Rosenwald Schools of the American South. Between visits to the library, we also got a chance to tour a bit of the historic Fisk campus. While looking at the 1873-built Jubilee Hall, we started talking to a student who turned out to be an official campus tour guide, and she gave us a little of the history of the building. While the all-female dorm’s “courting room” is no longer used for that purpose, the residents of Jubilee Hall still do keep a curfew.

Entrance to Jubilee Hall
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

The centerpiece of Fisk’s campus is Cravath Hall, which houses a beautiful and renowned collection of permanent murals by the great artist (and Rosenwald fellow) Aaron Douglas. Today the former library is used as the university’s administration building, but we were able to walk in and view the lovely Douglas murals in the old card catalogue room.

Aaron Douglas mural above built-in card catalogue
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

All in all, a great trip to Tennessee. It was made even better when we found a great Jewish deli right behind our hotel.

Noshville, on Broadway in Nashville’s West End
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

By Aviva Kempner and Michael Rose

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg to screen in Silver Spring, Maryland

The AFI Theater in Silver Spring is screening a series of baseball films in March and April, including one of the Ciesla Foundation’s previous productions, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1999). Their description is below:

April 6, 2014 at 5:15 pm
AFI Silver Theatre, Silver Spring, MD

Tickets $5!
In person: filmmaker Aviva Kempner

This Peabody Award-winning film is a humorous and nostalgic documentary about an extraordinary baseball player who transcended religious prejudice to become an American icon. Hammerin’ Hank’s accomplishments for the Detroit Tigers during the Golden Age of Baseball rivaled those of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. America’s first Jewish baseball star was a beacon of hope to American Jews who faced bigotry during the Depression and World War II.
DIR/SCR/PROD Aviva Kempner. US, 1999, b&w and color, 95 min, 35mm. RATED PG
Co-presented by the Washington Jewish Film Festival and Women in Film & Video of Washington, DC.

Rosenwald School replica to be built in Huntsville

A story was recently posted on about a Huntsville, Alabama museum’s plans to build a replica of a Rosenwald School according to original Rosenwald School plans. According to architect Greg Kamback, the four-room schoolhouse would “replicate the look of [a Rosenwald School] as much as possible on the inside and outside.” During the building process, Burritt on the Mountain museum solicited input from community members who had attended Rosenwald Schools in the area. When completed, the building would become a place for visitors to learn about the history of African American education in Alabama.

Back in September, we heard about another effort to rebuilt a Rosenwald School in Alabama. A group of students in Phenix City, Alabama, planned to rebuild a Rosenwald School in their town. Unfortunately, they contacted us a couple months later and indicated that their project had been put on hold indefinitely due to lack of funding.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see that, along with the numerous Rosenwald School restorations in progress, people are also attempting to rebuild examples of this vital piece of American history. For decades, many Rosenwald Schools suffered from neglect, and indeed thousands of them have been demolished since the end of the program in the 1930s. Perhaps public interest and engagement has turned a corner and many of the remaining Rosenwald Schools will be preserved.