Alabama community gathers Rosenwald School memorabilia for new Smithsonian

Gene Thornton, an alumnus of the Randolph County Training School, is reaching out to members of his community for any historical items or images they may have salvaged from their school before it closed in the 1970s. RCTS was a Rosenwald School built in 1919, and historic materials from the school have been requested for an exhibit at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

Read more at The Randolph Leader.

Exhibit at MCA Chicago features Rosenwald Apartments

A new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago reportedly features recently-shot footage of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, built by Julius Rosenwald in 1929 on Chicago’s South Side.

According to MCA’s exhibition listing, the video installation, Unititled (Structures), by Leslie Hewitt and Bradford Young “is comprised of a series of silent vignettes, filmed at sites connected to the Civil Rights movement and the struggle for racial equality in the United States.” The present day images that Hewitt and Young have filmed of these locations in Memphis, Arkansas and Chicago belie their historic significance and cast a static, anti-nostalgic eye at structures that are still heavy with symbolism.

We got a tip from someone who attended the exhibition that the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments appear in the installation. Based on the description, images of the storied apartment complex should fit into the installation’s thematic context. At the time of its construction, the Rosenwald Apartments represented a significant step forward for African American housing opportunities in the city of Chicago, and modeled a way towards decent housing for all. Today “The Rosenwald” lies dormant and unheralded, just another vacant structure in a part of the city that is accustomed to derelict buildings and vacant lots. Fortunately, there is a plan in the works to rehabilitate the complex and provide affordable housing and retail space.

The Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments in 2007
Photo credit: SilverRaven7 (flickr)

Get more details on the exhibit at MCA’s website. MCA will hold an event with Leslie Hewitt on August 23rd and the exhibit will be open until August 31st.

The HistoryMakers collection to be acquired by Library of Congress

The HistoryMakers, a huge archive of interviews with African Americans (both famous and not) who accomplished great things, will be added to the collection of the Library of Congress soon, according to The New York Times.

The archive, which contains over 9,000 hours of video interviews with 2,600 interview subjects, is an important historical endeavor and captures the stories of many amazing individuals, including some who have since passed away, such as Maya Angelou and Ruby Dee. Clips of the HistoryMakers interviews with Angelou and Dee can be viewed in the New York Times article linked above.

Adding these materials to the Library of Congress should ensure their preservation and open them up to easier access by viewers from the public as well as researchers and documentary filmmakers. Before he passed away in 2006, photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks sat for a HistoryMakers interview. In the interview, he discusses his fellowship from the Rosenwald Fund that helped his photography career early on. We hope to use this footage in our upcoming documentary, The Rosenwald Schools.

The founder of The HistoryMakers, Julieanna Richardson, should be commended on her vision and the years of work it took to realize it. Read more about this new stage of the HistoryMakers at The New York Times.

Rosenwald School spotlight: Pleasant Plains School

In May, we spotlighted the Rosenwald Schools of Pender County, North Carolina on this blog. Today we turn our attention to the northeast corner of the state: the Pleasant Plains School of Hertford County. Marvin T. Jones recently recounted the history of the school for us:

Pleasant Plains Church was founded in 1851 by free people of color who were mixed-race. In order to establish the church, A local White Baptist church oversaw the church and the pastor had to be white. During the Civil War, at least 40 men from the Pleasant Plains community joined the United States Colored Troops. After the war, the church founded its school in 1866. Four schools later came out of Pleasant Plains Baptist Church and the school: the Cotton School, the Walden School, the Union School and what became the 12-year Calvin Scott Brown School, the first high school in the region for people of color. I attended Brown for 9 years and transferred to a previously all-white high school.

Around WWI, the Rosenwald Fund encouraged Pleasant Plains Church to build a successor schoolhouse, the Rosenwald school that I am now working to preserve. In 1950, the county closed the school and sold it to the church for $1. Since then it has served as a community center, and it is now dormant.

The church, Pleasant Plains Baptist, where I am a member, has accepted my proposal to preserve the schoolhouse. The first steps are just now being made. On June 27th an NC State Historic Preservation officer will visit the site and advise us. Part of my proposal is to put the building back in use by the church and community.

The Pleasant Plains Rosenwald School in the 1980s
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Marvin T. Jones

As with all Rosenwald Schools, the African American community in Pleasant Plains partially funded the construction of the school (40% of constructions costs in this case, according to the Rosenwald Database at Fisk University). But community involvement didn’t end at the funding of the school. Here’s an account of daily life at the school that really showcases the way the community stepped up to support it.

It was a true family school in which teachers and parents cooperated in various aspects of the school experience. According to former student Calvin Weaver, a family living across the road from the school provided wood for the pot-bellied stove in each classroom and made the fire early in the morning before teachers and students arrived. In summertime the mothers gathered together to can string beans, corn, lima beans, and tomatoes for their children’s lunches. On cold winter mornings they took turns sending jars of food to school. After organizing the day’s lessons, the teacher opened the jars, poured the contents into a large pot, and set the pot on top of the stove to warm. Because the room was cold, the contents took a long time to heat. By lunchtime, however, the pot was warm and everyone enjoyed the delicious soup made from vegetables their own mothers had canned.

From Black Heritage Sites: The South, by Nancy C. Curtis, 1996.

The Pleasant Plains Rosenwald School, circa 1940
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Marvin T. Jones

A portrait of Julius Rosenwald, which was a feature of many Rosenwald Schools, still hangs in the Pleasant Plains Rosenwald School:

Julius Rosenwald’s portrait in the Pleasant Plains School
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Marvin T. Jones

Interestingly, this portrait seems to be identical to the one Lester Mae Hill retrieved for us at the Cairo Rosenwald School in Tennessee when we visited earlier this year:

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

The Pleasant Plains Rosenwald School can be found near the junction of US-13 and Pleasant Plain Road in Hertford County, North Carolina (between the towns of Winton and Ahoskie). Many thanks to Marvin Jones for sharing these pictures and this information about his school.

Rosenwald connection at the National Gallery of Art

Ever since the new Degas/Cassatt show opened at the National Gallery of Art here in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago, I’ve been meaning to check it out. The NGA came up recently on The Rosenwald Schools production when I interviewed Linda Levy, whose grandfather Lessing Rosenwald (JR’s first son) donated a substantial amount of art to the venerable gallery.

Lessing Rosenwald in later years
Photo credit: The estate of Nancy Salazar

Because I had two good reasons to visit the NGA this weekend I decided to make the trip with my editor, Marian Hunter. When I arrived at the gallery, I asked a tour guide where I might find Lessing Rosenwald’s contributions to the museum and she directed me to Room 75 upstairs.

It was only once I arrived at the “Lessing Rosenwald Room” that I realized his donated artworks were part of the wonderful temporary exhibition of works by Degas and Cassatt. Six pieces donated by Rosenwald have made their way into this show.

It’s great to know that Lessing Rosenwald’s contributions to the NGA remain vital and interesting to museum-goers and remain publicly available, as was his wish. Rosenwald also donated many materials to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., and they have a “Rosenwald Room” that is set up to resemble Lessing’s reading room at “Alverthorpe,” his home in suburban Philadelphia (which is now a park belonging to the borough of Jenkintown, PA).

The Degas/Cassatt exhibition is open at the NGA until October 5th, so take the time to visit before then.