Rosenwald-influenced school in historic South Carolina Gullah community

On Daufuskie Island, one of a chain of sea islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia, sits a one-room schoolhouse called the Jane Hamilton School. From the outside, it looks very much like a Rosenwald School, but it was actually fully funded by the immediate community and constructed by local tradesman as well as WPA workers. The Rosenwald Fund provided funding to over 5,000 schools across the south, but this historical building is an example of the many additional schools that were built not with Rosenwald Fund money but with Rosenwald School plans. Beyond providing architectural plans, the Rosenwald Fund’s school-building program served as a demonstration to all people that communities suffering under segregation could come together to improve local education facilities even if assistance from state and federal government was withheld.

Community School Plan No. 1A, as seen on a plaque in front of the Jane Hamilton School
Photo credit: Christine M. Rose, April, 2013

The school was built on Daufuskie Island (near Savannah, Georgia) for the Gullah children of the island community. The Gullah people are the descendants of slaves from West and Central Africa whose language and culture incorporates influences from the African nations their ancestors lived in centuries ago. For many years, even into the twentieth century, this was a place that was somewhat cut off from the mainland (even today there is no road connection) and this isolation served to preserve the vibrant Gullah folk culture and language, especially after an influx of freed slaves moved to this region in the wake of the Civil War. Today, the Gullah culture is dispersing geographically to an extent (the Gullah population on sea islands like Daufuskie has declined) but there are local and national movements to preserve cultural landmarks like the Jane Hamilton School. A 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust, by Julie Dash, that tells an inter-generational story in a Gullah community around the turn of the twentieth century, introduced many people to the Gullah culture.

The Jane Hamilton School, Daufuskie Island, SC
Photo credit: Christine M. Rose, April, 2013

One aspect of the Rosenwald Schools that is often recalled by alumni is the large windows and the buildings’ orientation towards the sun (to maximize natural light). This style is clearly evident in the Jane Hamilton School: one side of the building is full of large windows (see the photo below) while the other side (see the above photo) utilized small “breeze windows,” placed high up to allow airflow to the classroom while blocking out the view of the street so children would not be distracted by passersby.

Interior of the Jane Hamilton School
Photo credit: Christine M. Rose, April, 2013

Today, the Jane Hamilton School serves as the Gullah Learning Center, a community center where elections are held, with historical exhibits about the school and the Gullah community and a library. The building (which dates from 1940, 8 years after Julius Rosenwald’s death) is a great example of historical preservation as well as a demonstration of the extended influence of the Rosenwald Fund even beyond the 5,000+ schools it directly funded.

By Michael Rose

Rosenwald School Spotlight: Fairview Colored School, Georgia

The Rome News-Tribune reports that a foundation that plans to restore an extremely distressed Rosenwald school in Cave Spring, Georgia has reached its initial fundraising goal, allowing the purchase of the historic school and grounds. Joyce Perdue-Smith has lead the effort to rehabilitate the neglected school ever since it was discovered under heavy kudzu growth in March of 2010. Volunteers have cleared the vegetation from the school and begun to stabilize the structure, but there is still much work to be done. The future of the school building is as yet undecided, but hopefully through the dedication of Smith and others, the building can be saved and put to a purpose that serves the community once again.

You can read more at the Fairview/ES Brown Heritage Corporation website.

By Michael Rose

Photographs by Rosenwald grantee Marion Palfi displayed in recent Jewish Museum show “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951” that closed on March 25th

The Rosenwald Fund continues to live on as Rosenwald Fellowship recipient Marion Palfi’s works were shown in an exhibit on display at the Jewish Museum until March 25th. The exhibit, entitled “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League, 1936-1951,” showed work from the famous New York-based social photography group to which Palfi belonged.

The Jewish Museum in Manhattan
Photo Credit: oh_annaluise, 2008 (flickr)

Born in Berlin in 1907, Marion Palfi grew up in a middle class household that encouraged her in various artistic pursuits. While still a teenager, she had a successful career as a performer (dancer, model and actress), but in her early twenties she gave it all up to pursue photography. By the mid-1930s, she owned a photography studio in both Berlin and Amsterdam. However, as World War II escalated, she fled Europe in 1940 to settle in New York City.

Palfi soon found work in a U.S. government war photography studio and began making contacts in the New York art and photography world, including Langston Hughes and Lisette Model (a Photo League member and also a fellow recent Jewish immigrant from Europe). Palfi’s work during this time on minority artists must have impressed the Rosenwald Fund trustees, as they offered her a substantial grant in 1946 that allowed her to take a three-year journey through the American South documenting Jim Crow segregation and racial discrimination.

Some of Palfi’s most memorable work was produced during this period from 1946 to 1949. In addition to documenting everyday life under Jim Crow, she photographed racially-charged subjects such as the Columbians, a white separatist group in Georgia who took sartorial cues from the Nazis and enforced racial segregation with violence. One of Palfi’s most significant projects was a photo documentary of the aftermath of a lynching in Irwinton, Georgia. She gained considerable access to all parts of the community of Irwinton (the Ku Klux Klan, the black community, journalists and village leaders) and produced a manuscript about the event entitled There is No More Time, which remains unpublished.

Two of Palfi’s photos, both of which were likely produced during the time of her Rosenwald grant, were on display until recently in The Jewish Museum’s exhibit about the Photo League. The Photo League was a collective of social documentary photographers (including Palfi) that was active from 1936 to 1951. The first Palfi photo, In the Shadow of the Capitol depicts a street scene in a garbage strewn alley community just blocks from the Capitol building. The second photograph, Wife of the Lynch Victim, is a haunting image of the widow of Caleb Hill Jr., who was taken in 1949 from a jail cell in Irwinton and lynched. The University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography owns a huge collection of Palfi’s work, from before and after her emigration and on a wide variety of subjects, which is accessible online here.

Although Palfi’s story is the best example, there were several other interconnections between Rosenwald Fund recipients and the Photo League. Rosalie Gwathmey of the Photo League was married to Robert Gwathmey, the social realist painter and 1944 Rosenwald Fellowship recipient. Jack Delano of the Photo League encouraged Gordon Parks to apply to the Rosenwald Fund for a grant so that he could join him as a photographer at the Farm Security Administration (Parks became a Rosenwald Fellow in 1942). Also, Gilbert D. Olmstead was a black Pittsburgh-based photographer who received a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1946 and was later associated with several Photo League members, including Weegee.

By Michael Rose