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.
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.
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
Aviva Kempner with David Stern, (far left) attorney, philanthropist, social activist and great-grandson of Julius Rosenwald
On Sunday, (April 22nd) Karen Lash and Martha Ertman generously hosted a screening in their Northwest Washington D.C. home of the work in progress version of Aviva Kempner’s new film, The Rosenwald Schools.
The screening was followed by a lively discussion among the intimate audience. As it has at other screenings, the film provoked a conversation about philanthropy and early 20th century social progressivism among both those who remember the Rosenwald schools and those who were learning about it for the first time.
Aviva Kempner and Martha Ertman address the audience
Check back to this blog for information on future screenings. If you are able to help to finish this film by hosting your own fundraiser, you will receive credit in the final film. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested.
In the Arts section of April 9th’s New York Times, Sam Roberts writes about the little-known but influential philanthropoid, W. McNeil Lowry of the Ford Foundation. In 1959, Lowry allocated funds from the foundation to the author James Baldwin, who was struggling to complete his now-famous novel Another Country. Personal letters from Baldwin along with other documents from the Ford Foundation can now be viewed at the Rockefeller Archive Center. They tell the important story of a foundation that was committed to funding the arts in a time before such federal programs as the National Endowment for the Arts took up the cause.
Lowry was hired by the Ford Foundation in the wake of a major reorientation of the foundation’s goals. In The Ford Foundation: The Men and the Millions, Dwight MacDonald describes this shakeup as being precipitated by an influential article in a 1949 issue of Harper’s written by the head of the recently-dissolved Rosenwald Fund, Edwin R. Embree. The article, “Timid Billions: Are the foundations doing their job?” called on the large philanthropic foundations of the country to move away from conventional and conservative giving into the kind of risky, creative grants that had been provided by the Rosenwald Fund. At the time, endowments like the Rockefeller Foundation directed the vast majority of their grants to medicine and education, causes which Embree claimed were being increasingly funded by government and private donations. Embree argued that the role of the foundation should be more radical charity, because “social pioneering […] is the essential business of foundations” and foundations are “especially fitted to be the creative minority to spur society on” (qtd. in Alfred Perkins, Edwin Rogers Embree).
Edwin Rogers Embree
Embree’s “Timid Billions” greatly influenced the direction the Ford Foundation would take in the following years. In 1950, three years after Henry Ford’s death, the board of the foundation commissioned a “study report” to figure out the best path forward for the foundation. This report followed Embree’s prescriptions nearly completely, recommending “no spending on medicine, health, welfare agencies, or the natural (that is, physical) sciences,” (MacDonald, 159) causes which had made up the majority of the foundation’s budget up to that point. Instead, the foundation began putting money into what would become the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and, in the tradition of Embree and the Rosenwald Fund, individual grants to worthy artists like Baldwin who needed financial support.
The Times article also explains how the newly opened archives of the Ford Foundation may prove a valuable resource to art historians. For example, a letter from Baldwin describes a novel he hoped to publish that would have taken place in a Southern state and depicted the immediate reactions of slaves and slave-owners to emancipation. Likewise, the archives of the Rosenwald Fund, which gave similar grants to individuals, provide insight into the working process of many well-known artists, educators and scholars. Works completed under Rosenwald grants along with essays about the Rosenwald Fellowships can be found in A Force For Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a book-length study edited by Daniel Schulman.
By Michael Rose
Celebration marking the laying of the cornerstone of the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City
Photo Credit: Unknown, published in The Outlook, October 28th, 1914
Between 1911 and the time of his death in 1932, Julius Rosenwald provided funding for the construction of African-American YMCAs in 24 cities. Although some have been lost, many have survived the better part of a century since the opening of Rosenwald’s challenge grant program.
The Butler Street YMCA in Atlanta, in operation since 1920
Photo Credit: Rob Dunalewicz, 2012 (flickr)
While African-Americans are no longer restricted from staying in other hotels, the Rosenwald YMCAs can still serve a purpose in their communities. Some of these buildings remain in active use as YMCAs, such as the ones in Atlanta, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Harlem and Chicago. Others have been adapted over the years to meet the changing needs of their communities. Brooklyn’s has become a nursing home, while Toledo’s, Dayton’s and Washington’s have been repurposed as community centers.
The Paseo Boulevard YMCA building in Kansas City, pre-renovation
Photo Credit: Equina27, 2010 (flickr)
Several others have seen more creative reuse. In Kansas City, reuse of the long dormant and increasingly blighted Paseo Boulevard YMCA as an extension of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum will be made possible through a remediation grant from the EPA, a federal grant and a massive fundraising drive in the community. The new facility, known as the Buck O’Neil Research and Education Center, will house museum archives, exhibits, conference facilities and educational areas. The Paseo YMCA is an important historical site for the Negro Leagues, as it was the location in 1920 of the formation of the Negro National League, the first African-American professional baseball league.
Murals outside the new Buck O’Neil Research and Education Center in the former Paseo YMCA
Photo Credit: Pam Morris, 2011 (flickr)
In Los Angeles, the Paul Revere Williams-designed 28th Street YMCA is in the process of being rehabilitated and expanded to provide 50 units of affordable housing to the Central Avenue community. The new building, expected to open in June of 2012, will also provide social services to its tenants and community meeting space. While no longer a YMCA, the building has stayed true to its original goal of providing housing and services to a vulnerable population.
After the YMCA in Dallas closed its Rosenwald-funded building on Flora Street in 1970 to move into a new facility closer to the emerging African-American community in Oak Cliff, the building was intermittently vacant or used as office space until it was purchased in 2002 by the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Thanks to small and large-scale fundraising in the community, the Theatre opened its new space in 2007 after a lengthy rehabilitation of the building.
Rosenwald would likely have approved of the reuse of these structures. Rosenwald’s philosophy of philanthropy, outlined in two popular articles he wrote in 1929 for the Saturday Evening Post and the Atlantic Monthly, stressed the importance of large, flexible gifts as opposed to specific, restricted ones. The YMCAs in their original state as multipurpose community centers and temporary residences epitomize this form of flexible, unconditional philanthropy.
The Rosenwald YMCA on 135th Street in Harlem
Photo Credit: Jeff Dobbins (http://nycxplorer.com/)
Likewise, the creatively repurposed YMCAs are an extension of Rosenwald’s philosophy. The fundraising drives that have made these creative reuse projects possible have come from the same communities Rosenwald’s challenge grants energized into building the YMCAs in the first place. Biographer Peter Ascoli points out that Rosenwald knew that “it was just as likely that the concerns of today would be completely superseded by other concerns in the far distant future,” so reuse of the YMCA buildings fits with his intentions. For example, the revitalization and repurposing of the Harlem YMCA honors Rosenwald’s legacy of philanthropic giving, as it “is known less for its history than for its effort to re-establish itself at the center of the neighborhood” (The New York Times, Oct 25, 2008).
By Michael Rose