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new york city | Rosenwald Film

D.C. interviews for The Rosenwald Schools reveal intriguing insights, surprising connections

One of the pleasures of producing The Rosenwald Schools has been that, even though we select our interviewees based on their knowledge on a specific topic, more often than not they surprise us with fascinating facts, anecdotes and new points of view that we weren’t previously aware of. This was very much the case with the interviews we filmed on December 11th, and we’re extremely thankful for the time and effort of the interviewees who spoke with us that day.

The Rosenwald Schools

One great surprise occurred during our interview with David Driskell, a longtime art professor and a noted artist himself. We initially reached out to Mr. Driskell because of his knowledge of African American art and Rosenwald Fund fellows (several of whom he knew personally), but it turns out he had a story to share about a Rosenwald School as well from his upbringing in rural Rutherford County, North Carolina.

In the spring of each year, we would leave our little one-room school to go down to Cliffside, North Carolina to a four-room school, which I was told was a Rosenwald school. It was a brick building, and we didn’t have any brick buildings in our area. We would go there for what we called Commencement. It had nothing to do with graduation, it actually had to do with displaying your creative skills, your oratorical skills, drawing, paintings […] and it was where I first exhibited my art made from the local clay in the brooks. (David Driskell, Dec. 11, 2012).


David Driskell (with a poster advertising his artwork in the background)

Another unexpected connection was made in our next interview, with Denise Johnson. Ms. Johnson is a descendent of Clinton Calloway, head of Tuskegee’s Extension Department and a crucial administrator of the Julius Rosenwald’s school-building program. Johnson is a resident of the Washington D.C. area, and she also shared with us that Clinton Calloway’s brother, Thomas, founded a town named Lincoln in nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland, where he organized the construction of a Rosenwald School.

It was Thomas’ idea to give African Americans at the time an opportunity to buy land to live in a community on their own. Thomas bought land and sold it in small plots to families. As the communities started to grow they needed to have a school, and it’s my understanding that the local government was not forthcoming in providing the funds for the school. Interestingly enough—and maybe not as a surprise—Thomas decided to call on the Rosenwald Fund and ask for help. (Denise Johnson, Dec. 11, 2012)


Aviva Kempner with Denise Johnson

The Lincoln Rosenwald School is one a few extant Rosenwald Schools in Prince George’s County, though it is heavily remodeled. Its current address is 5201 Baltimore Lane, Lanham, Maryland.

The 12th Street YMCA

The legacy of the Rosenwald Fund is felt even more strongly in another part of the D.C. area, where the pilot building in Rosenwald’s YMCA-building program stands in the heart of the historic African American community around U Street NW (we detailed the path the building took to construction in another blog post). In addition to shooting footage of the YMCA’s beautiful and well-preserved interior (which includes historical exhibits about the luminaries who frequented the building), we talked to the Dodsons, a father and daughter who are both experts on local history. Norris Dodson, who used the YMCA’s facilities as a young man and remains a passionate advocate for the building, spoke about the importance of passing that history on to the next generation.

When I played basketball at the 12th Street Y, I always recall having fun, making connections with people my age, learning to play fairly. But the one thing that was missing is that I was not told about the wonderful history of the building, that great basketball players played here: Elgin Baylor, John Thompson. In fact, John Thompson told us that he was discovered here. But I was never aware that John Thompson played here when I was playing. When I found that out, I was an adult. And I always thought that if I had known these guys played here, that I would have been a better basketball player, just because of that. I thought it was sad that so many kids in the neighborhood didn’t know that Dr. Drew and Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes and Montague Cobb and so many others who had international reputations, reputations that grew far beyond this community, all met here. If the kids of some generations had realized that, if that history had been taught to them, they would have been able to have confidence that they didn’t have and use that confidence to grow to higher levels. (Norris Dodson, Dec. 11, 2012)


Our cameraman, Michael Moser, getting some exterior shots of the YMCA

Lori Dodson, Norris’s daughter, added context to her father’s interview and also revealed a more recent connection between the 12th Street YMCA and Julius Rosenwald:

In 1982, due to the deterioration of this lovely building, it was forced to close its doors. It was a travesty because it was during a time when there were so many ills in the community, many problems among youth and drugs. It was a time, like during segregation, where this building and the type of character that it developed was sorely needed. And so a group of people came together, concerned citizens, and decided that they were going to protest the potential demolition of this building, […] a place like this that is so historically significant. […] Julius Rosenwald was key in making sure that this building was open and his family was also involved in making sure that it reopened once again. If this building were not open today then my family would have lost a lot of our personal history, and I know that that’s the case of many, many families. (Lori Dodson, Dec 11, 2012)


Lori Dodson on our set in one of the restored rooms of the YMCA

Artists of the Rosenwald Fund

Along with David Driskell, we interviewed another art history scholar, Dr. Richard Powell of Duke University. Powell is a wonderful storyteller and a fount of knowledge about Rosenwald fellows. He shared a series of backgrounds on notable beneficiaries of the Rosenwald Fund with us, including this story about sculptor and teacher Augusta Savage:

Augusta Savage is a legend in African American art history. I say that because so much of her life was filled with struggle, with perseverance and with creativity all mixed up. She comes from Florida, she settles in New York in the early 1920s. She’s working very hard to try to develop her skills as a visual artist and she’s lucky enough to win a prize that will allow her to go to France. The Fontainebleau School provides her with [this] opportunity, until they find out that [she] is African American. When word gets around through the Fontainebleau School that they are about to bring an African American to the school, they basically say, “No, we’re not going to give this award to you.” And it actually is a cause célèbre. [Later, in the early 1930s,] thanks to the Rosenwald Foundation, Augusta Savage has an opportunity to go to France. France, for artists, is like a dream come true: the opportunity to walk in the paths of other famous artists, to live a life that is liberating without people questioning or looking at you based on your race. She has a wonderful experience there. Interestingly, when she comes back to Harlem, she then shifts gears back into the community [and] puts all of her energy and effort into developing an art school, the Harlem Arts Center, as one of the places that young people like [Rosenwald fellow] Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis and other artists will go to learn about art. I often describe Augusta Savage’s school as a kind of latchkey school for young aspiring artists. Her school ended up being not just a place to study art, but it became kind of a community center. (Richard Powell, Dec. 11, 2012)

Savage was not the only Rosenwald fellow that went on to become a teacher and mentor to younger artists (other examples include Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas and Charles White) and we’re excited to be able to tell her story and the stories of other Rosenwald fellows in The Rosenwald Schools, and grateful to those who have lent their voices to the film.


Dr. Richard Powell

By Michael Rose

Jacob Lawrence, painter of the Great Migration

Some may call his work revolutionary, but according to artist Jacob Lawrence his art simply reflects the culture he knew and the stories he was told growing up. Born in New Jersey, Lawrence grew up in the 1920s, a period when artistic expression was booming amongst African Americans. After moving to Harlem, he was introduced to mentors such as Charles Alston and Augusta Savage who molded him into the dynamic artist that visually portrayed the construction of blackness.

Portrait of Jacob Lawrence, 1941
Photo credit: Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress

During the age of “The New Negro,” a term coined by Alain Locke, Lawrence along with Langston Hughes and Claude McKay was able to expand his talents thanks to the Julius Rosenwald Fund. In Lawrence’s case, the fund enabled him to rent a studio, which led to the further development of his series of paintings entitled The Great Migration, which depicted the journey, struggle, and triumphs of blacks from the South to the North after the Civil War. His depiction of that cultural movement provided a different perspective of a commonly told story capturing moments that people could relate to and understand.

Lawrence was able to complete the series remarkably quickly (all 60 panels were finished in 6 to 8 months of 1941) thanks to the first two of his three consecutive Rosenwald grants in 1940, 1941 and 1942. The Migration Series was recognized fairly quickly as an important work and in December of 1941, it was shown in Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New York City as part of a pioneering exhibition of “American Negro Art,” possibly the first time a black artist’s work had been displayed in a major New York gallery.

Curators of two modern art museums, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., immediately expressed interest in purchasing the series. It was decided that the collection would be split in half, each museum taking 30 paintings, for a total purchase price of $2,000. MoMA took the even numbered panels based on the input of one of its trustees, Adele Rosenwald Levy. Levy, the daughter of Julius Rosenwald, had fallen in love with panel #46, an image of a staircase, and it was agreed that the paintings be divided so that MoMA would receive that one. The Migration Series remains a prominent feature of both museums’ permanent collection and over the years has been reunited for exhibitions around the country.

Years after his death, Lawrence still provides a platform for untold stories through art. Jacob and his late wife Gwen developed a fellowship at the Seattle Art Museum that funds artistic work from people of color that reflects Lawrence’s ideologies. The Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Foundation houses all of his series including Toussaint L’Ouverture – one of his most notable works. For more information on Jacob Lawrence’s paintings, visit jacobandgwenlawrence.org.

By Ariel Edem and Michael Rose

Work by Rosenwald fellows for sale at New York auction

On October 18th, Swann Galleries in New York will hold an auction of African American Fine Art. Among the lots for sale are prints, paintings and sculptures by 11 Rosenwald fellows: Charles Alston, Richmond Barthé, Elizabeth Catlett, Eldzier Cortor, Lawrence Arthur Jones, Ronald Joseph, Jacob Lawrence, William Eduoard Scott, Charles Sebree, Charles White and Hale Woodruff. One highlight is a print of Catlett’s iconic Sharecropper. Also interesting is Eldzier Cortor’s Classical Composition No. 4., which is estimated to go for the highest price in the auction. Rosenwald Fund grants often allowed artists the opportunity to study and work abroad (for example, see Augusta Savage or Elizabeth Catlett’s work). William Eduoard Scott’s When the Tide is Out is another example – it was done on his 1931 trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti under his Rosenwald fellowship.

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