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South Carolina | Rosenwald Film

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

Exhibition at NYC Gallery featuring Rosenwald fellows to finish run on Saturday

INsite/INchelsea,” a modern art exhibition at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in Manhattan, closes its nearly 3 month run this Saturday, March 9th. The show features work by 5 of the most prominent artists to receive Rosenwald fellowships: Eldzier Cortor, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, Augusta Savage and Charles White. Incidentally–and interestingly–the Rosenfeld Gallery’s selections from these artists displays what their art looked like before they received their Rosenwald grants.

For example, take a look at Cortor’s 1938 “Rooftops on Wabash,” a painting of Chicago rowhomes framed through a second story apartment window. With the help of the Rosenwald Fund in the mid-1940s, Cortor went on to develop his artistic practice outside of this kind of urban space (traveling to South Carolina and, later, the Caribbean) but it’s fascinating to see this earlier stage in his career. Likewise, you’ll see Jacob Lawrence’s 1937 “Christmas in Harlem,” which displays some of the same style he would perfect in his acclaimed “Great Migration” series, completed with the help of consecutive Rosenwald grants in 1940, 1941 and 1942. From Charles White, the gallery offers a 1936 oil portrait, a piece that’s markedly different from the epic, historical murals and prints he would create later in his career, after his consecutive Rosenwald grants in 1942 and 1943.


Young Augusta Savage at work
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, be sure to see Augusta Savage‘s famed “Gamin” (1929), a beautiful piece that put the great sculptor on the map and earned her 3 Rosenwald grants to study art in Europe in 1929, 1930 and 1931. Because these works of art were likely the ones that initially drew the attention of the Rosenwald Fund grant administrators, viewing them can give you a glimpse into the Fund’s working process. If you are in the area, take the time to visit the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery before the exhibit closes.

By Michael Rose

Charles H. Houston, opponent of segregation, filmed the Rosenwald Schools

Charles H. Houston, a key figure in the history of legal challenges to segregation, also has an interesting connection to the Rosenwald Schools. Houston, who was born in Washington D.C., went on to practice law in the area as well as instruct students such as Thurgood Marshall at Howard Law School. His career as a lawyer spanned the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, and included many important civil rights cases. Kenneth W. Mack’s new book, Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer, gives an excellent background of Houston’s life and accomplishments.

Being a lawyer, Houston focused especially on the integration of the country’s legal system. At this time, segregation in the courts was different than the segregation faced by other professions, like doctors, teachers or small business owners. As W.E.B. Du Bois observed in 1899, since “a lawyer must have co-operation from fellow lawyers and respect and influence in court… prejudice or discrimination of any kind is especially felt in this profession.” Especially in the South, black attorneys were forced to put up with many hurdles and limits set up within the courtroom. In 1933, Houston accepted a case with which he could challenge the segregated Southern court system in Loudoun County, Virginia. In the murder trial of George Crawford, Houston set important precedents for the rights of black attorneys to argue major cases and the importance of black participation in juries.

Although Houston did not live to see the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a project he undertook during the fall of 1934 played a major role in the landmark verdict. During this time, Houston traveled to the South and filmed black schools in order to document the inequalities under Jim Crow segregation. These films (funded by a philanthropic organization out of New York, the Harmon Foundation) went on to be used as a vital exhibit in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 (four years after Houston’s death).

These films are important to our project on Julius Rosenwald for an unlikely reason. While they were meant to demonstrate the failure of school districts to maintain black schools (the intertitles point out that the roofs and windows are in need of repair) they remain as possibly the oldest moving images of Rosenwald Schools. Houston’s footage of what is believed to be the Bethel Grade School in South Carolina will be featured in the upcoming documentary, The Rosenwald Schools, a clip from which can be viewed here:

 

 

In addition to breaking down the barriers of segregation in the legal system, Houston was a great believer in the importance of equal educational opportunity. In 1935, he claimed that “Discrimination in education is symbolic of all the more drastic discriminations which Negroes suffer in American life” (quoted in Genna Rae McNeil and A. Leon Higginbotham’s biography, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights). Like Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington before him, Houston fought for equality in education for all.

By Michael Rose