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segregation | 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

New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools

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


A’Lelia Bundles with Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: Michael Rose

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)

A’Lelia Bundles with Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: Michael Rose

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.

Clarence Page
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

“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.

Charlene Drew Jarvis
Photo credit: Michael Rose

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.

Dr. DeMaurice Moses and Charlene Drew Jarvis
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

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.”


Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

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

The Ridgeley School
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

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.

Aviva Kempner with Mildred Ridgley-Gray
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

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 Ridgley-Gray
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

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.”

On the set with Mildred Ridgley-Gray
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

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)

Aviva Kempner with LaVerne Gray
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

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)

Artifacts in the restored Ridgeley School
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

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)


Joanna M. Smith
Photo credit: Jackson Berkley

By Michael Rose