Filming for the upcoming The Rosenwald Schools is moving forward. On May 16th and 17th, we filmed several interviews with experts and descendents of people who either worked with Julius Rosenwald or were touched by his philanthropy.
ON MADAM C.J. WALKER
First up, on May 16th, was A’Lelia Bundles, who fondly recalled her great-great-grandmother, Madam C.J. Walker, a famous African-American entrepreneur from the early 20th century. Madam Walker started out as a washerwoman but “promoted herself” little by little until she ran her own hugely successful business producing hair care products for African-American women. Walker, whose factory was in Indianapolis, was generous and community-minded as well, and was one of the principal donors to the Julius Rosenwald YMCA on Senate Avenue in Indianapolis, giving $1,000 to the cause. This incredibly generous donation was the largest by a black donor to a Rosenwald YMCA, putting her on a level with the donations from white Indianapolis businessman and helping to spearhead the pledge drive in the black community. Ms. Bundles stressed the passion for philanthropy that accompanied her great-great-grandmother’s keen business sense:
“I think [her gift of $1,000 to the YMCA] transformed her, in a way, because she realized that selling hair care products was really a means to an end, that the greater good that she could do would be to give back to her community [and] to contribute to institutions like the YMCA. […] She really saw her business as a way to make a difference.” (A’Lelia Bundles)
Ms. Bundles, a former television producer and writer, is an excellent source for information about the life of Madam Walker. In 2001, she compiled her research into an entertaining and informative biography entitled On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. Ms. Bundles also spoke of the positive effects of the YMCA that Rosenwald and Madam Walker partnered to fund.
“It was really the hub of political and social activity in the African-American community for many years. Although the building is no longer there, the memories and the legacy of what Julius Rosenwald and Madam Walker and others did really still lingers.” (A’Lelia Bundles)
ON HOUSING IN CHICAGO
Next we spoke to Clarence Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist of the Chicago Tribune. Mr. Page is an expert on the history of housing in black Chicago. In the interview, Mr. Page lauded the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments (built by Julius Rosenwald) as a timely and very practical solution to the housing shortage in the Black Belt area of Chicago’s South Side.
“At a time when many African Americans were coming into Chicago and looking for decent housing and many of them finding opportunity and moving up the ladder into the middle class, there wasn’t enough housing there to accommodate their needs. And so Michigan Garden Apartments, that sort of development, was a real godsend for many folks who were looking for a real community and a real place to belong. […] It became a neighborhood in itself, and this is why a lot of folks just knew it as the Rosenwald Gardens more than the Michigan Gardens, because his name was so well known, respected, and beloved by so many South Siders.” (Clarence Page)
Because of racial covenants in residential developments, even upwardly mobile black Chicagoans had trouble finding decent housing. Like many of Rosenwald’s philanthropic projects, the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments was designed to help improve the situation of African-Americans under racial segregation as a stopgap measure until integration could occur. “The Rosenwald,” as it was known by many, was a beloved and elegant building with spacious interior grounds and generously sized units.
ON DR. CHARLES DREW
On May 17th, we interviewed two experts on the life of Dr. Charles Drew, a surgeon from Washington D.C. who made use of a timely grant from the Rosenwald Fund to finish medical school. Dr. Drew was a talented, driven doctor who is most well known for his pioneering work on blood transfusions during World War II. Our first interviewee on this subject was Dr. Drew’s daughter, Charlene Drew Jarvis, a former D.C. Councilwoman who followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a doctor of neuropsychology and working with the American Red Cross.
Ms. Drew Jarvis related the story of Dr. Drew’s application to the Rosenwald Fund. In 1931, Drew was already a junior in McGill University’s medical school, but was unsure if he would be able to continue due to his financial situation. His parents were struggling because of the Depression and he was no longer able to make extra money officiating basketball and football games due to the busy schedule of classes and his work at the hospital. Drew applied to the Rosenwald Fund and received a $1,000 grant that allowed him to complete medical school. Ms. Drew Jarvis read from a letter that her father wrote to the Rosenwald Fund later in life, thanking them for their support:
“The fellowship which I received from the Rosenwald Fund came at a rather needy and critical period of my training. I remain continuously grateful to the memory of the man who made such aid possible and fully conscious of the spirit in which such grants are made. It is my sincere intention to serve well as I go along from day to day. It is my constant hope that I shall be able at some time to add some new thought, discover some new process or create something which will prevent or cure disease, alleviate suffering or give men a chance to live and grow and smile more freely and thereby, in part, repay the debt, which I am happy to acknowledge.” (Dr. Charles Drew, quoted by Charlene Drew Jarvis)
Dr. Drew was also an inspirational and gifted teacher to many African-American medical students at Howard University. Our second interviewee was Dr. DeMaurice Moses, a pediatrician who was born in Washington D.C. and later served as the only black doctor in a community in Washington state. Dr. Moses was inspired to succeed by hearing Dr. Drew speak as a young child, and recalled Dr. Drew’s bold maxim, “Excellence of performance will transcend adversity and other difficulties such as discrimination.” As pioneers in the racially segregated medical profession, both Dr. Drew and Dr. Moses had to work even harder for the respect of their peers and their communities, but both rose to the task.
Ms. Drew Jarvis illuminated another link between Rosenwald and Dr. Drew, the black YMCA in Washington D.C. Rosenwald gave funding to the organization’s building on 12th Street NW, a building which Ms. Drew Jarvis called a “cultural icon” in the community. “For many African-American kids,” including a young Charles Drew, the 12th Street Y “was the center of their recreation and the center of their cultural upbringing.”
Sadly, Dr. Drew died prematurely at the age of 45 in a 1950 car crash after falling asleep at the wheel while driving from Washington D.C. to Tuskegee, Alabama. There is an urban legend that claims Dr. Drew’s subsequent death was a result of the unwillingness of the North Carolina hospital that took him in to administer blood from a white donor. This story is probably appealing because of its irony—Dr. Drew had fought passionately against segregation of blood banks—but it is not entirely factual. Dr. Moses explained that the hospital in Burlington, North Carolina did everything it could for Dr. Drew, but pointed out the role that racial discrimination did play in the car crash itself, which was brought on by the fatigue of driving overnight.
“He was not able to simply stop his vehicle and get lodging in a hotel or motel because African-Americans could not stay in hotels or motels during that time. […] American discrimination against African-Americans actually prevented the United States and the world from the services of Dr. Drew for perhaps another fifty years.” (Dr. DeMaurice Moses, on Dr. Drew’s car crash)
ON THE RIDGELEY SCHOOL
On May 17th, at the Ridgeley School, a Rosenwald-funded school in Prince George’s County, Maryland, we interviewed two descendents of a local family instrumental in the school’s construction, Mildred Ridgley-Gray and her daughter, LaVerne Gray. Later, we talked to Joanna M. Smith, a representative of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, whose Prince George’s County chapter spearheaded the campaign to restore the school and continue to volunteer their time as tour guides for the public.
Both Mildred and LaVerne attended the Ridgeley School, and it was Mildred’s mother who donated the land on which it was built. Mildred stressed the role Julius Rosenwald’s philanthropy played in ameliorating the ill effects of the of Jim Crow segregation. In rural area, so-called “separate but equal” school segregation often resulted in a situation where black children literally couldn’t go to school in their community because the only schoolhouse was reserved for white children. Mildred pointed out the hypocrisy of taxes from black citizens in southern communities going to pay for a school system that excluded their children:
“If it wasn’t for Julius Rosenwald, we would not have been exposed to the curriculum that the taxpayer dollars were paying for. Ridgeley School offered that opportunity.” (Mildred Ridgley-Gray)
Mildred also shared a humorous Sears-related memory from her childhood.
“[When] the new catalogue came in, the [old] catalogue was given to us to look at and to select clothing and to learn the names of clothing and what we wanted. We had wish lists and we could fantasize with that. […] After that, it went out into the outside toilets that we had on the farm, and we used pages from that as toilet tissue. […] The Sears catalogue was next to the Bible in our home.”
Mildred’s daughter, LaVerne Gray spoke about the emotions she gets when she sees the restored Ridgeley School:
“When I see it all restored like this, of course it brings back all the memories of childhood. […] There’s a certain pride for what actually happened. Not just for my family, but to know that Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald [came] together and [created] something fabulous; schools for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity.” (LaVerne Gray)
Part of what made the Rosenwald schools inspiring for students is that each building was designed with care, with beautiful windows yielding large light-filled classrooms. LaVerne spoke about this architectural style and also about the way the Ridgeley School is situated in the community:
“What I remember so strongly is turning that corner on Central Avenue, coming down the panhandle to get to the school. And when you get to the end, it opens up in front of you, this wonderful building. I think that’s how I got to love architecture, just something about the strength of that building.” (LaVerne Gray)
Joanna Smith is a native of Columbus, Ohio and therefore was not well informed about the Rosenwald schools prior to moving to Prince George’s County in the late 1960s. However, when she heard about the historical schools at a community meeting, she encouraged the service oriented Delta Sorority to join forces with Mildred Ridgley-Gray to restore the school. The history of the Ridgeley School is now very familiar to Ms. Smith, and she spoke positively about Rosenwald’s part in it:
“If I was in the room with Julius Rosenwald, I would certainly want to thank him for his vision of seeing that the black youth were educated. His top priority was that everyone should have a right toward education. And even though it was separate, still they should be educated. And I would thank him for his vision.” (Joanna M. Smith)
By Michael Rose