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Film Production | Rosenwald Film

Great find in the Lessing Rosenwald collection at the Library of Congress

We came across something remarkable at the Library of Congress this week. One of our researchers was there to look at some photos of Lessing Rosenwald, who donated a collection of rare books that has been one of the key components of the Library of Congress’s Rare Book and Special Collections division since his death in 1979. Born in 1891, Lessing was the first child of Julius and Augusta Rosenwald, and followed in his father’s footsteps in the 1930s as president of Sears Roebuck.


Lessing in July 1913 with Edith Goodkind, who he would marry in November of that year
Photo credit: Courtesy of Peter Ascoli

Descendants of the Rosenwalds talk about the divide between Lessing, Adele and Edith Rosenwald, who grew up in a close-knit middle class household, and Marion and William Rosenwald, who came of age after Julius Rosenwald had made his fortune at Sears. Unlike Lessing, Adele and Edith, Marion and William felt a certain distance from their parents as Julius and Augusta’s social and civic obligations began to take up more and more of their time.


Julius Rosenwald with his son Lessing, circa 1895
Photo credit: The estate of Nancy Salazar

Staff at the Library of Congress recently came across Lessing Rosenwald’s “baby book,” a beautiful volume that contains pictures of Lessing as a baby with his two sisters and mother, handwritten notes by his parents about his weight, when he started crawling, and even a lock of his hair from his first haircut. This amazing album sheds some light on the loving family circle Lessing grew up in and it’s a great complement to his legacy, the Rosenwald Room at the Library of Congress and the remarkable collection he so generously donated to the institution.


Augusta Rosenwald with her first three children, Edith, Adele and Lessing
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection archive

Thanks to the staff at the Library of Congress for making this great collection available to all!

First Page News: Rosenwald Schools Interviewee Clarence Page Visits Politics & Prose to Reflect on 30 Years of Chicago Tribune Columns


Award winning veteran journalist and news panelist Clarence Page is an interviewee in The Rosenwald Schools. At 1:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 26,, 2014, Page will read from a thirty year compilation of his columns, at Politics & Prose Bookstore at 5015 Connecticut Avenue, N.W. in Washington, D.C.

Page has long been associated with Chicago, where Julius Rosenwald lived, and helped build the Wabash Avenue YMCA. One of the nation’s most recognized columnists and broadcast commentators, Page has earned a Pulitzer Prize and a National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Lifetime Achievement Award. He has been a regular panelist on The McLaughlin Group. His new book Culture Worrier: Selected Columns 1984-2014: Reflections on Race, Politics and Social Change marks the 30th anniversary of Page’s print debut in The Chicago Tribune. The collection represents the impressive range and depth of his commentary on social issues, foreign policy, and politics.

Looking for that perfect photo – the talented Rabbi Hirsch

In our upcoming film about Julius Rosenwald, we plan to talk a little bit about the great Reform rabbi Emil Hirsch. Hirsch was the rabbi at Sinai Congregation in Chicago around the turn of the 20th century and had a great influence on Rosenwald’s personal philosophy of charity. An intense orator, Hirsch was well-known in the city for his fiercely held beliefs about social justice and for the way he would lecture his own congregants, some of the wealthiest men in Chicago, if he felt they had acted selfishly or unjustly in their business affairs.

Hirsch must have been physically imposing as well, and one of the most interesting facts in his early biography is that, before he was ordained as a rabbi, he played football at University of Pennsylvania. Picturing Rabbi Hirsch on the college gridiron (with no padding at that time, of course) is the sort of detail that can really bring a figure from history to life in a documentary film, so it’s been disappointing that we haven’t yet turned up a photo of the rabbi from that time in life.

Our first stop, of course, was University of Pennsylvania’s archives. Penn has an extensive online archive of its own history and, surprisingly, you can actually view yearbooks from when Hirsch attended in the early 1870s online. Here’s an example of the “University Record” from 1871, where you can see Hirsch’s name as the treasurer of the class of ’72 on the very first page. Unfortunately, yearbooks from this time did not include headshots of students.

Not only did Hirsch play football at Penn, according to this document from the Penn archives, he was actually part of the first football game played at the university in 1871. American football was just in its infancy at that time and was mainly played at East Coast universities. The 1871 game, which pitted the seniors (including Hirsch) against the underclassman, was also recounted on page 26 of the 1872 yearbook, but again, with no pictures.

Football stayed popular at Penn after this inaugural game, and team photos exist in Penn’s archives for the 1878, 1879 and 1880 team. Kudos to Penn for keeping such a wonderful archive of its early sports teams, but we can’t help feeling a bit disappointed – if Hirsch had played football at Penn only a few years later than he did, we might have a photo of him with the team to use in The Rosenwald Schools.

New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools: September 16, 2014

First we filmed an interview with Steven Nasatir, the longtime president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, an organization whose first president was Julius Rosenwald. Nasatir recounted how Rosenwald became president of the new organization in 1923, after he engineered the merger of the Associated Jewish Charities, primarily composed of German Jews, and the Orthodox Federated Charities, primarily composed of Eastern European Jews. Rosenwald took at as his mission to unite these two charitable organizations into one large federation, a combination that resulted in greater efficiency and potency for both.


Steven Nasatir and Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September, 2014

Nasatir helped reveal the roots of J.R.’s philanthropy, which came out of his Jewish faith, and the roots of his famous motto:

J.R.’s motto of “Give while you live” was in some ways an English way of talking about tzedakah, which is righteous action. In the Jewish tradition, we don’t talk about “charity,” we talk about “righteous action.” J.R.’s whole life was being a righteous man and [working] on repairing the world, this notion of tikkun olam.

In the Jewish faith, tzedakah is a form of obligatory charity. Rosenwald felt that it was his responsibility to promote justice through philanthropy, not only to give to the less fortunate, but to give in such a way that they would be able to help themselves. Rosenwald’s challenge grants to African American communities in the South are the greatest example of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. By giving a portion of the funds needed to build a rural schoolhouse, he created a scenario where reluctant counties and their underserved African American residents both contributed to the improvement of educational opportunities.

Next we talked to David R. Mosena, the president of the Museum of Science and Industry. MSI is a great museum that received virtually all of its initial funding from Julius Rosenwald before it opened in 1933. Unfortunately, Rosenwald died in 1932, and never saw the completed museum. Since then, however, hundreds of thousands of visitors to the museum have been inspired by its exhibits. Rosenwald’s vision of the museum as a hands-on showcase for America’s industrial technology has survived to this day. Mosena explained the way the concept for the Museum of Science and Industry was developed by J.R. and his son, William.

[The museum] came about when Julius Rosenwald took his son to Munich around 1911. The two of them spent quite a bit of time at the Deutsches Museum, which is in Munich. It was then and is still one of the grandest industrial museums in the world, and his son fell in love with that museum. They had never seen a museum that was interactive before, where people got to push levers and turn knobs and do things.

So Julius Rosenwald came back to Chicago and decided that he would take on the task of trying to [create] a museum like the one he and his son discovered in Munich, a museum that was very hands-on, that showcased what he called America’s inventive genius and demonstrated America’s growing prowess in science and technology.


David R. Mosena, president and CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September, 2014

After shooting some retakes and a short interview with Peter Ascoli (the grandson and biographer of Julius Rosenwald and one of our primary interviewees) we also interviewed Bill Buckner, a man who attended an Arkansas Rosenwald School. As a child, Mr. Buckner voiced the question that was on the minds of many children who attended a school supported by Rosenwald and saw the portrait of him that often graced one of the walls in these schools.

Once while walking down the hall I saw three pictures above a door in the hall. And I asked the principal about who they were. And there was Booker T. Washington. W.E.B. Du Bois, and Julius Rosenwald. And I wanted to know, why was a white man’s picture in our school? And he said he was our benefactor and that he built the school and that when it burned down he rebuilt it.

Seeing Rosenwald’s picture prompted Mr. Buckner to learn more about the school’s benefactor. He was especially inspired by the way the Rosenwald Fund responded after the school burned to the ground – probably the result of arson, an all too common form of backlash against African American schoolhouses during the Jim Crow era. Undeterred, the Rosenwald Fund and community members rebuilt their school. It was actually this “second” Rosenwald School that Mr. Buckner attended as a child.


Bill Buckner with Peter Ascoli
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September, 2014

Thanks as always to our great interviewees.

New York’s DuArt Film & Video provides shelter to forgotten films

The New York Times reports that the top floor at DuArt, “the premiere hatchery of American independent cinema,” is home to hundreds of films stored by independent filmmakers at the lab over the years, many of which were forgotten and orphaned by their owners. As digital distribution continues to expand, original film prints can fall by the wayside, surprisingly even by the filmmakers who created them.

The article lists some intriguing titles that are currently housed at DuArt, including Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, a 1984 adaptation of Twelve Years a Slave directed by Rosenwald fellow Gordon Parks, and Simbiopschotaxiplasm, an experimental film by William Greaves, a great documentary filmmaker who passed away on Monday.

Until recently, The Ciesla Foundation was storing some old prints of our previous films at DuArt, where we processed all our films. DuArt is the premiere lab for independent filmmakers and is headed by the wise and kind Irwin Young, who is the best friend to independent filmmakers. Because of a heads up from Young and Steve Blakely we’re happy to say that we already retrieved our negative a few months ago.

Click here to read more at The New York Times.

New interviews for the Rosenwald Schools – August, 2014

On August 20th, we added a new interview for The Rosenwald Schools with Elsa Smithgall, an expert on Jacob Lawrence, and a follow up interview with Stephanie Deutsch, author of You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South.

First we interviewed Ms. Smithgall, a curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. who is organizing an upcoming exhibition of the complete Migration Series, painted by Jacob Lawrence during his Rosenwald fellowship. It’s rare to see the series all together, because in February of 1942, after being shown at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New York, the 60 panels were divided; half were purchased by the Phillips and half by MoMA. For the upcoming exhibition curated by Ms. Smithgall, the panels will be reunited and the series will be displayed in its entirety at both the Phillips Collection and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


Elsa Smithgall of the Phillips Collection with Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2014

As Smithgall explained, the series, which depicts the epic migration of African Americans to the industrial north in the early 20th century, was divided among even and odd panels for the two galleries. This was done to preserve as much as possible of the narrative thrust of the series’ sequence in both halves of the collection. Adele Rosenwald Levy (daughter of Julius Rosenwald) played in central role in MoMA’s acquisition of half the panels, and she pushed for that half to be the even panels because a certain panel, number 46, spoke to her. The panel depicts the cramped living conditions new migrant workers faced at labor camps, and both Smithgall and our second interviewee Stephanie Deutsch mused on what aspect of the painting elicited such a strong reaction from Levy.

Smithgall also related the remarkable fact that Lawrence, who created an indelible portrait of the South in his Migration Series, had not personally visited the South before painting the series. Although, according to Smithgall, Jacob Lawrence “was aware of the impact of the negative conditions of the South” he hadn’t yet seen it first hand when he captured it in his own “direct and distilled” way in the 60-panel Migration Series. However, Lawrence’s parents had participated in what’s known as the “Great Migration” and he had observed the challenges faced by the new African American population in New York City and his native New Jersey.

Although we did discuss Lawrence’s Migration Series, and especially panel number 46, with our second interviewee, Stephanie Deutsch, we changed gears a little bit to talk about Julius Rosenwald’s school-building program. Rosenwald is best known for his financial contributions to over 5,000 rural schools for African Americans and for his innovative challenge grants that multiplied his investment, but less well known is his personal interest and encouragement of the communities his fund supported. As Stephanie said:

One thing I’m very struck with is that [Rosenwald] made a personal commitment to these schools. He was a very busy man, but he often travelled down south to visit the schools. These schools were all in very rural areas–they’re hard to get to now–so a hundred years ago it was quite a commitment on his part to make a point of going to visit the schools to see the students who studied there, the parents, the community that would gather to welcome him. That was something that impressed Rosenwald very much, that the schools didn’t just benefit the children, they benefited the whole community.

We had Rosenwald’s journeys south in mind on Saturday when we visited, along with Stephanie, a Rosenwald School on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Although today the journey is not as treacherous as it was 100 years ago, it was a long trip from Washington, and it reminded us how remote many of these schools were, especially the ones built in tiny rural communities like San Domingo, Maryland. This trip will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.