Elizabeth Catlett, painter, sculptor and former Rosenwald fellow, passed away Monday in her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Catlett was born in Washington, D.C. in 1915 but moved around a lot as a student and artist, spending time at black universities such as Howard, Hampton and Dillard and also studying at the University of Iowa and the Art Institute of Chicago. Catlett’s large body of work cements her status as one of the great African American artists of the 20th century, and her obituaries note that she was one of the last remaining links to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s. Catlett was also married to another Rosenwald fellow, artist Charles White.
One of Catlett’s best-known works, a series of linoleum-block prints called The Negro Woman, was created with the help of consecutive Rosenwald fellowships in 1946 and 1947. The abstract black and white images in this series include portraits of black women doing everyday tasks, pictures of black luminaries such as Harriet Tubman and striking images of segregation and labor organization. The images are made more powerful by their bold and matter of fact titles, such as “I have always worked hard in America” and “My right is a future of equality with other Americans.” A print from this series belonging to the Whitney Museum can be viewed online here.
“Singing Head,” Elizabeth Catlett, 1980
Photo Credit: Michael Rose
Property of Smithsonian American Art Museum
It was the Rosenwald fellowship that initially brought Catlett to Mexico, where she spent the latter half of her life. According to Daniel Schulman’s essay in A Force for Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Catlett spent the first year of her fellowship thinking creatively about how to make a sophisticated artwork that would still communicate to a mass audience. At the same time, Catlett was honing her printmaking craft (which she first studied at Howard) at the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a political printmaking collective in Mexico. The Rosenwald grant allowed Catlett the freedom to gradually develop The Negro Woman, which Schulman, a curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, called “[maybe] the most successfully realized and powerful project to have emerged from a Rosenwald Fellowship.”
Author and University of Florida professor of creative writing Harry Crews, who also passed away within the last week (March 28th) spoke of a connection to Sears in his early life. Crews grew up in rural Georgia in a household that contained only two books, the Bible and the “Consumer’s Bible,” the annual Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue. As a child, he would make up stories with friends while paging through the catalogue, riffing on its idealized images.
Crews recounted this method of creative storytelling for a 2003 documentary called Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (IMDb), a scene from which can be seen here. “See, when I was a boy, the Sears Roebuck catalogue […] came to everybody’s mailbox in the South,” says Crews in the documentary. “First thing that struck us was everybody in the Sears Roebuck catalogue was perfect. Wasn’t any baldheads, everybody had all the fingers that was coming to ‘em. Nobody had any open and running sores on their bodies. But everybody we knew had a finger missing or one eye put out from a staple glancing off a post. In other words, everybody in our world was maimed and mutilated whereas everybody in the Sears Roebuck world was perfect. And so we just started to tell stories about the people. We’d give them names.”
The Washington Post ran detailed obituaries for both Ms. Catlett and Mr. Crews.
By Michael Rose
Before philanthropist Julius Rosenwald provided funding for rural schools for African-Americans, he initiated an equally successful program designed to aid the nation’s growing urban population of African-Americans. In a time when many blacks were migrating to industrial centers, the Young Men’s Christian Association played a valuable role by providing both interim housing for the new population (who were barred from most residential hotels due to segregation) and a community center in which to practice religion and physical fitness.
The Washington D.C. YMCA, located at 1816 12th Street NW, played this role for the vibrant African-American community around nearby U Street. Funding for the 12th Street YMCA was an early model for the kind of “challenge” grants Rosenwald would use to encourage local investment and increase the funding power of his philanthropy. The $100,000 building was funded in four equal parts; a grant from Rosenwald, a grant from John D. Rockefeller Sr., the central YMCA administration and most importantly, a significant contribution of $27,000 from the Washington D.C. black community. Around Christmas of 1911, after President Taft called his attention to the cause, Rosenwald presented the Washington YMCA with a personal gift of $25,000 that allowed the building to be complete and operational by April of 1912.
The 12th Street YMCA, shortly after its opening
Photo credit: Published in The Outlook, October 28th, 1914
Using the Washington YMCA as a model, Rosenwald pledged $25,000 for the construction of similar buildings in any African-American community that could raise the additional funds as Washington’s had. Although these were segregated facilities, the partnership between the black and white communities in building these structures created, for Rosenwald, a “foundation for a better understanding of each other, promising much for the future,” (The Chicago Defender, 1913) and provided much needed service to the communities that housed them.
African-American branches of the YMCA had existed since before the Civil War, but they were often itinerant associations, meeting in temporary locations such as residences or churches. Washington D.C. became the first city to establish a YMCA for African-Americans when Anthony Bowen established the “Colored Young Men’s Christian Association” in 1853. Bowen’s YMCA initially met in his home and later in donated or rented spaces around the city.
As a permanent replacement for these temporary spaces, the modern and well-equipped 12th Street YMCA represented a bold step forward for both the black YMCA and the black community at large. The large building contained dormitories, classrooms, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a barbershop, bowling alleys and a cafeteria. Its striking Renaissance Revival architecture stands out on 12th Street and the fact that it was designed by noted African-American architect and Tuskegee grad William Sidney Pittman made it an inspiring contribution to the community. Over the years, the 12th Street YMCA housed and hosted numerous famous visitors and residents of D.C., including Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston, Charles Drew and Langston Hughes.
The 12th Street YMCA was the first building to be completed under Rosenwald’s program, but over the next 20 years, Rosenwald would go on to fund 23 similar buildings in black communities around the U.S. (such as Chicago’s Wabash Y). These buildings were invariably spacious, well-built structures that provided an aesthetic and spiritual anchor for the communities that commissioned them. Although some have fallen victim to urban renewal over the years, at least 15 are still standing, some still in use as YMCAs, others restored as community centers, museums, performing arts centers and affordable housing. The 12th Street YMCA was renovated and reopened as the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage in early 2000 and continues to serve as event space and a community center for the U Street area.
The Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage
Photo credit: Michael Rose, March, 2012
By Michael Rose
The work in progress of The Rosenwald Schools, the upcoming documentary film by Aviva Kempner, screened for a standing room only crowd at noontime on Tuesday, February 28th, at the Mary Pickford Theater in the Madison Building of the Library of Congress. Ms. Kempner was joined by Stephanie Deutsch (author of the new book You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South) to introduce the film. Many thanks to all who attended and please check back to this blog for updates on future screenings in the Washington D.C. area and elsewhere.
photo by David L. Sacks
A gathering after Stephanie Deutsch’s book signing at D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose provided a venue for a discussion between relatives of Julius Rosenwald and descendants of Rosenwald Fund beneficiaries and fellow donors. Stephanie Deutsch’s new book, You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South, describes the productive relationship between the famous African American educator Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald. Together they built over 5,000 schools in the rural South for African Americans. Rosenwald also set up the Rosenwald Fund in 1917 to continue this work on a larger scale. The Rosenwald Fund aided gifted Black intellectuals and artists in order to give them one to three years to concentrate on their work and develop their abilities.
Please join the Humanities Council of Washington, DC for its Humanitini series, where young professionals can come together to discuss the issues of the day that are relevant to themselves and their community, in a relaxed atmosphere.
“Distortions of the district”
Tuesday, February 21st 6pm-8pm
Caverns: Tap and Parlour: 2001 11th Street, NW (At U Street)
Talk to local film experts about the way Washington DC has been portrayed in both feature and documentary film.
Filmmaker Aviva Kempner
Filmmaker Steven Nero
Lauren from DC Film Girl Blog
Kendra from Our City Film Festival (Yachad)
Jonathan Gunn from DC Film Alliance.
Moderated by Amy Saidman of SpeakeasyDC.