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north lawndale | Rosenwald Film

New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools filmed in Chicago

Significant progress was made on the filming of The Rosenwald Schools on December 3rd and 4th when Aviva and her Chicago crew filmed a slew of interviews in the home of Peter Ascoli, grandson of Julius Rosenwald. Our thanks go out to Peter and his wife Lucy for graciously hosting us and our interviewees.

The Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments

Three wonderful individuals who had lived in the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments agreed to speak to us: former Chicago school superintendent Manford Byrd, Ralph Metcalfe Jr. and Lauranita Dugas. Mr. Byrd grew up in southeast Alabama but moved to Chicago in the mid-1950s in search of work. He explained the situation in Chicago at the time, and the significance of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments.

There certainly has been an improvement in housing for African Americans in Chicago, but when I came it was really tight and really restricted. The real estate concerns controlled the movement of blacks very tightly and at many of the places, they cut up the apartments and made kitchenettes of them. We were at that time at the tail-end of another one of the great migrations into the city, so it was just very tight. But here was this oasis, here was this Mecca in the middle of the community… (Manford Byrd)

Byrd had only been living in the city a short time when he heard about “The Rosenwald,” as the apartment building was known around town. He and his fiancee were looking for a place to live and, after months on a waiting list, Byrd was able to secure an apartment in the Rosenwald by persistently reaching out to the building manager, Gwendolyn Minerbrook.


Manford Byrd

The waiting list at the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments was lengthy because the apartments there were greatly superior to many found in the rest of the community. Indeed, as Ralph Metcalfe Jr., son of Olympian and Congressman Ralph Metcalfe Sr., put it, “In 1946, the Rosenwald building was the place to be.” Metcalfe was born in the Rosenwald Apartments and talked about the celebrities (including his own father) who called it home: Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and more. Above all, he stressed what a great place it was to grow up, a view that was echoed by our next interviewee, Lauranita Dugas.

Dugas is the daughter of Robert Rochon Taylor, who was the first manager of the Rosenwald Apartments and later the chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. Although she was only a child, she was extremely aware of the inner workings of the building and related many details about what the building used to hold: a nursery school, a goldfish pond, a dance studio and many small businesses. Dugas also shared with us a humorous anecdote about Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears Roebuck and namesake of the building:

One day, Mr. Rosenwald came to the building […] and was supervising and observing the painters. Just making conversation, he said, ‘Is that Sears paint?’ The painter didn’t know who he was [and] said, ‘Oh, no. We don’t use the Sears paint. It’s no good. We wouldn’t put it on this fine building.’ Mr. Rosenwald was just absolutely astonished. He went back over to Homan Avenue [Sears headquarters] and said, ‘What kind of paint are we using that’s so cheap that the painters don’t want to put it on?’

Aviva conducting a pre-interview with Lauranita Dugas

Rosenwald’s Impact on Chicago

Next we talked to Dr. Irving Cutler, author of several books, a native of Chicago’s North Lawndale and probably the foremost historian on Jewish Chicago. Cutler ranks Rosenwald the most influential Jewish citizen in the city’s history, largely because of his work to bring together the Eastern European and the German Jews of the city, who at that time were often at odds and lived in separate communities. Rosenwald, whose family was part of the older wave of German Jewish immigration, reached out to the more newly arrived community of Eastern European Jews in Chicago in several ways, but perhaps most visibly by engineering the combination of the two communities into the new amalgamated Jewish Charities of Chicago, which spearheaded support for Jewish relief causes in the wake of World War I.


Dr. Irving Cutler

Rosenwald passed away in 1932, but the Rosenwald Family Association (a philanthropy ran by his children) were able to help a sizable number of their extended family members escape Nazi Germany in the days leading up to World War II. Ursula Jonas, our next interviewee, was one of these fortunate individuals, and she immigrated from Germany with her family in 1936 thanks to the assistance of William and Lessing Rosenwald and the Adler family. Jonas, who still lives in the Chicago area, spoke about the lasting bond she formed with the Adlers during her early years in the USA:

[They] were just the most wonderful, warm, generous, giving people that anyone could have. [They] took care of everything: they set up apartments. […] they helped with jobs for the family, they were there with advice and help. My mother became ill in 1939 after my sister was born [and] they hired someone to stay with us, so we had someone there helping out for actually several years. We attended Thanksgiving gatherings […] and actually later on, when I was ready to go to college, I got some assistance from the Rosenwalds, helping out with my college tuition. (Ursula Jonas)


Ursula Jonas on our set (with Peter Ascoli in the background)

We also interviewed Kathleen McCarthy, director of exhibits and collections at the Museum of Science and Industry, on the topic of Rosenwald’s impact in Chicago. Ms. McCarthy explained the fascinating details of Rosenwald’s inspiration for and founding of the museum, a topic that will be expanded upon in a future post on this blog.

Rosenwald’s Philanthropy

Kenneth Warren, a professor at University of Chicago and an expert on African American literature and Ralph Ellison in particular, brought out the context of the Rosenwald Fund’s philanthropy and talked about the impact of Rosenwald grantees on the broader culture of the Jim Crow South. He also had an interesting rumination on Rosenwald’s legacy, which he said had occurred to him while in a department meeting in the campus’s Rosenwald Hall:

I suspect that it might be true that your Fund sought to achieve a vision that included the idea that the University of Chicago Department of English would include among its faculty African American scholars studying African American literature and that this would be an important part of the [curriculum]. (Dr. Kenneth Warren)

Aviva with Dr. Kenneth Warren

After Dr. Warren, we met with two economists, Daniel Aaronson and Bhash Mazumder, from the Chicago Federal Reserve who have done creative and significant research on the impact of the Rosenwald schools. Aaronson and Mazumder used census and military enlistment records to track the heretofore uncharted effects of Rosenwald schools on Southern communities, and found a wide range of positive effects on communities that built schools with the help of the Rosenwald Fund.


Aviva Kempner with Bhash Mazumder and Daniel Aaronson

Finally, Oyekunle Oyegbemi spoke to us about the compelling connection he feels to the Rosenwald school he attended in Prentiss, Mississippi. The Rosenwald Fund provided funding for the campus’s iconic Rosenwald Hall, a beautiful stone building that had many purposes.

[We] were actually proud of that campus and that particular building, because it was the centerpiece […] and I would later learn that that was one of the larger Rosenwald buildings. All the activities were centered around that building. We would go to Vespers services on Sundays, graduation services, the community would [have] meetings, we would have entertainment there. I was in a little band and we would perform there. Not only that, we had classrooms and a library there and on the lower level, they had the administrative offices. So that building was kind of like a catchall for everything and everything was centered around that building.

Oyegbemi, whose family helped found the school, also worked as a handyman on campus during his time at Prentiss. For Oyegbemi, a native of rural Mississippi, the Rosenwald school was a place of discovery; of art, music and his African ancestry. The school was so important to him that years later, in 1989, upon hearing that it was slated to be closed, Oyegbemi packed up and left his current home and job in Chicago and moved back to Mississippi, where he spent months attempting to save the school. Although he was ultimately unsuccessful at saving the school for its original purpose, the campus is still standing and he hopes one day to be part of a rehabilitation campaign there.

Aviva with Oyekunle Oyegbemi

Many thanks to our fantastic interviewees for relating their fascinating stories and illuminating details about Julius Rosenwald’s life and impact.

By Michael Rose

Sears’ West Side Campus: the original Sears Tower in Chicago presides over a transitional neighborhood

The original Sears Tower, 930 S. Homan Avenue, Chicago
Photo credit: flickr user Zol87, June 3, 2009

While in Chicago, many tourists make a stop at the former headquarters of Sears located in the tallest building in the United States. The views of Chicago’s Loop from the top of what’s now known as the Willis Tower are stunning. An equally interesting view can be seen from the top of a different tower just four miles west of the Loop. This somewhat lesser known building, commonly referred to as “the original Sears Tower,” is found on the 40 acre North Lawndale campus that Sears called home for many years. The 249-foot building, originally surrounded on three sides by the massive Merchandise Building, now stands alone on a much smaller footprint facing Homan Avenue. Saved from destruction and later restored, this still empty but beautiful and striking building symbolizes both the history of Sears’ commercial might and the aspirations of the redeveloping community around it.

View of the Merchandise Building and Sears Tower
Photo credit: Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, circa 1920s

Sears consolidated its operations in North Lawndale in 1906, a site considerably removed from its former location, a mishmash of unconnected warehouses in the West Loop. The new complex was built along the B&O rail line, but the surrounding neighborhood was primarily residential, not industrial. In the years after Sears opened its Homan Avenue campus, upwardly mobile Jews from areas closer to downtown settled in North Lawndale. The neighborhood, close to centers of employment and situated between two of Chicago’s beautiful west side parks (Douglas Park and Garfield Park) became a prosperous Jewish community filled with elegant greystone homes and successful businesses, theaters and community organizations.

With the help of his friend Henry Goldman, Julius Rosenwald led Sears to a successful IPO in 1906 and oversaw the construction of the Sears, Roebuck Complex on Homan Avenue. Rosenwald assumed greater and greater leadership in the company and took over as president from Richard Sears in 1908. Rosenwald competently managed the three million square foot campus (the largest business building in the world at the time) which featured a complex pneumatic tube system, a scale model of the interior of one of the pre-fabricated bungalows Sears sold and a chemical laboratory for testing new merchandise. An open invitation to members of the public went out in the Sears catalogue, and many people toured the facilities each week.

Sears was the largest employer in the area and the Homan Avenue campus became a self-sufficient town center for its employees. Along with its factory, rail yard and distribution center, the site also contained its own power plant and fire station along with a variety of amenities for employees such as a YMCA, a public library, a cafeteria and a dining room. Later, in 1925, the first Sears retail store opened at the Homan Ave campus. Under Rosenwald’s leadership, Sears was booming, and its campus, which resembled a modern day suburban office park, was sprawling by early twentieth century standards, with surplus space left open for future expansion. This space was put to good use, as the company provided gardens, tennis courts and baseball diamonds for its employees. The Sunken Garden park with its Greek Pergola, provided by Sears as a respite for its workers during day, can still be seen on Arthington Street.

The Sunken Garden and Pergola, circa 1910
Photo credit: flickr user rich701

Sears began to move out of the Homan Avenue complex in the 1970s. Since that time, as other employers eventually moved to the suburbs as well and the area’s original residents followed suit, North Lawndale became an impoverished area with rundown housing stock and few amenities for residents. Beginning in the early 1990s, affordable housing was built on the site as part of a comprehensive development known as Homan Square. Rosenwald would likely have approved of an initiative like this, given the passion he displayed for modern, affordable housing in the construction of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments in Bronzeville, on Chicago’s South Side. Homan Square is a mixed-use development that makes use of the site and some of the buildings of the former Sears headquarters. In addition to new housing, a large community center with indoor pool and gymnasium was built more recently at Homan Square, providing a vital amenity for North Lawndale residents. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the reuse of the Sears complex and grounds is the rehabilitation of the Power House Building, which once provided electricity for Sears’ operations. Power House High is a tuition-free charter high school that won awards in 2009 for its creative reuse of the remarkable building. Also known as The Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center, the rehabilitated school made use of sustainable materials and building methods and preserved many of the large industrial machines left over from when Sears occupied the building. A PDF document detailing the historic features of the building can be found here.

View of North Lawndale from the Sears Tower
Photo credit: flickr user Ian Freimuth, October 16, 2011

The history of the neighborhood around the Sears complex is reflected in its housing stock. As you can see in the picture above, taken from the vantage of the Merchandise Building Tower, vintage working class two and three flats stand alongside elegant early twentieth century single-family greystone homes. Interspersed throughout, but especially in the foreground, are some of the recently constructed townhomes that make up the Homan Square development on what used to be the grounds of the Sears complex. By building affordable housing alongside retail, community services and schools, and integrating it all into the existing neighborhood, the Homan Square development is leading the charge in revitalizing North Lawndale. The community today is very different than it was in 1906, but the Sears campus is once again at the center of it.

By Michael Rose