Work in progress of The Rosenwald Schools to screen in Maryland

April 15th, 2014

“American History through Film”
The Rosenwald Schools work in progress screening
Tuesday, April 29th, 7:15 pm
Free admission
Takoma Park Community Center
7500 Maple Ave, Takoma Park, MD 20912

On Tuesday, April 29, local filmmaker Aviva Kempner will screen her documentary-in-progress about Julius Rosenwald’s crusade to build black schools in the 1910s through the 1930s, including one in Takoma Park. The film is presented by Historic Takoma. Prior to the screening will be a performance by the [40 year old] Takoma Park Community Band, featuring songs by African American composers. NOTE: This event was originally scheduled in February but was canceled due to snow.

Portrait of Maya Angelou unveiled at Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

April 11th, 2014

Last weekend, Maya Angelou was on hand for the unveiling of her portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. The image of the poet and author was created by Ross Rossin and donated to the gallery by former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, according to The Washington Post.

Angelou attended a Rosenwald School in Stamps, Arkansas. She described her experience growing up under segregation for the 1993 documentary The Great Depression. Although she said her school (the Lafayette County Training School) was “grand,” she remembered the hand me down books her school got from the white school in town, and how the students were expected to make repairs to the bindings. One of Angelou’s teachers saw her potential and was able to get her some new books:

I had never seen a new book until Mrs. Flowers brought books from the white school for me to read. The slick pages, I couldn’t believe it, and that’s when I think my first anger, real anger at the depressive and the oppressive system began.

We plan to incorporate parts of this interview in The Rosenwald Schools documentary.

Denzel Washington in a new Broadway production of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’

April 11th, 2014

A new production of A Raisin in the Sun, starring Denzel Washington, debuted in the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York last week. The show is getting good reviews, including one by Ben Brantley of The New York Times.

Describing the set, Brantley writes:

A claustrophobic fatigue pervades the cramped, South Side Chicago apartment in which “A Raisin in the Sun” is set. And despite its often easygoing tone, a happy ending feels far from guaranteed. As designed by Mark Thompson, the Youngers’ living room cum kitchen is a narrow corridor that keeps its three generations of inhabitants in close, erosive proximity.

The kitchenette apartment where the action of A Raisin in the Sun takes place is based on the tiny shared-bath apartments that many African Americans called home in overcrowded, segregated early 20th century Chicago. After seeing the cramped conditions in the area of Chicago known as “The Black Belt,” Julius Rosenwald built the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, a spacious, modern, well-equipped building in the heart of the neighborhood in 1929. A scene from the 1961 film adaptation, starring Sidney Poiter, will be included in The Rosenwald Schools documentary and is already incorpoated in the twenty minute work in progress, which is used for fundraising to complete the movie. For ways to see the work in progress of the film and show it at a fundraising parlour party, contact We would be most grateful and you would be listed among the end credits.

You can read more about the new Broadway production at The New York Times.

Poem inspired by the Rosenwald Museum in Chicago

April 1st, 2014

Inspired by his son’s love for the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Julius Rosenwald founded the Museum of Science and Industry for “every young growing mind in Chicago” (Tribune, Apr 17, 1926). Years later, Rosenwald’s vision for an interactive, awe-inspiring experience has been cemented as an icon of the Chicago cultural landscape and continues to be a must-see attraction for natives and visitors alike. In her poem, “Doll’s House,” Chicagoan Donna Katzin fondly remembers visits to the Museum of Science and Industry with her father. Like for many young girls, Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle captured her imagination and created a lasting impression.

A room from Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle
Photo credit: kthypryn (flickr)

Doll’s House

Every Sunday we visit the museum.
My father takes my hand, leads me
to the miniature glass mansion
of pinpoint lights embroidered on midnight
like winking opals on taffeta.

He never breaks the spell,
as if fine filaments strung through the rooms
might shatter with a word,
wears the smiling mask
I never lift or question.

We hold our breaths,
do not risk a whisper
that might snuff out the magic,
condemn us to the darkness
of duties and debts.

I tiptoe through the corridors,
sit on matchbox thrones, ascend spiral stairs,
waltz in the vaulted ballroom to imagined melodies –
a princess in a palace
abandoned by the king.

These years later, his wrinkled hand is gone
with letters of his pen, notes of his violin.
Now he is the museum. I am still
the one on the outside

Donna Katzin
January 31, 2014
New York City

Birth of a Nation mentioned in EW interview

April 1st, 2014

Jeff Labrecque interviews World War Z author Max Brooks in Entertainment Weekly about his new graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters. The new book, about a black infantry unit during World War I, looks great. One moment in the interview caught our eye, in connection to some research we’ve done for The Rosenwald Schools.

You use pop culture from the period as crucial plot elements, including D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a blatantly racist film that reflected attitudes of the time — so much so that Woodrow Wilson screened it at the White House.
I had seen Birth of a Nation in college, and it just blew me away. The movie itself didn’t blow me away; it was the reaction to it. Like you said about Wilson, people loved that movie — white people. That was the Star Wars of its day.

Despite its overtly racist themes and imagery, the release of Birth of a Nation (arguably the first significant feature-length film) was indeed a major event. We learned, however, that in addition to playing to some white viewers’ racism (and even inciting racial violence in some cases), the film also galvanized the nascent NAACP. The film provided them with a nationwide target to organize against and boycott, which helped new organization find its footing and become one of the major advocacy groups for minority rights in American history. We interviewed historian David Levering Lewis about the White House screening of Birth of a Nation and its effect on the NAACP.

You can read the complete interview at Entertainment Weekly.

Short film about Dr. E.B. Henderson, founding father of basketball

April 1st, 2014

Edwin B. Henderson II, who we interviewed last week, shared a link to a short video made about his and his wife Nikki’s quest to establish the legacy of his grandfather Dr. E.B. Henderson, a historic basketball pioneer in Washington D.C.

After Mr. Henderson came across a box of papers, letters and photographs belonging to his grandfather, he began advocating for Dr. Henderson to be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame. Finally, in 2013, that goal was achieved due to Edwin and Nikki’s hard work. Dr. E.B. Henderson’s home in Falls Church, Virginia has also been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

GVI of Washington D.C. has put together a lovely short feature on the Hendersons. You can watch the video here.

New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools, March 2014 edition

March 28th, 2014

More lovely interviews for The Rosenwald Schools were filmed earlier this week in Washington D.C. First of the day was Stephanie Meeks, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Ms. Meeks told us about the National Trust’s involvement in Rosenwald School rehabilitation projects across the South, and their goal of restoring 100 of the roughly 800 extant structures in honor of the 100th anniversary of Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington’s school-building program.

Ms. Meeks said that when she initially learned about the tri-fold funding structure of the original Rosenwald Schools, she was “astounded” that the often impoverished local African American residents were expected and able to raise a third of the money necessary to build each school in the program. This matching grant strategy amplified the effect of Rosenwald’s philanthropy dollar for dollar, but it also helped community members get emotionally invested and protective of their community’s new school. Meeks sees a parallel to this in her own experience with Rosenwald School rehabilitation projects of today:

In many ways that same model is being replicated today in the rehabilitation of the Rosenwald Schools. The National Trust is working to provide technical assistance to communities as well as grant funding that we’ve been able to accrue from other philanthropists. And the communities, the students and graduates themselves, are perpetuating this virtuous circle by reaching into their own pockets, putting money forward to help with the rehabilitation costs of some of these buildings. They understand that the preservation and the restoration of the Rosenwald schools is a way of keeping this story alive and continuing to contribute to the community.

Aviva Kempner and Edwin B. Henderson, II
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, March 25, 2014

Next up was Edwin B. Henderson, II, who we met at a panel discussion last month. Mr. Henderson is a historical preservationist living in Falls Church, Virginia. His mission is to preserve the legacy of his grandfather (with whom he shares his name), an early 20th century educator who established the first black athletic league in the District of Columbia. Dr. E.B. Henderson is known for his work in physical education, but as his grandson explained to us, he always had a broader scope for African American achievement:

My grandfather, Dr. E.B. Henderson, his philosophy was that, given equal access for African Americans to physical training and fundamentals of the sports, that they would be equal or superior to their white counterparts. [He] used physical education and athletics as a tool, not in and of itself, but as a way to send qualified African Americans to Northern colleges and debunk the myth of racial inferiority.

E.B. Henderson taught students like Robert Weaver (who went on to become the first African American to serve on a presidential cabinet) and his basketball program in Washington D.C. produced such luminaries as Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing and John Thompson. Henderson’s work was given a boost in 1912 when the Julius Rosenwald-funded 12th Street YMCA opened in the U Street area of Washington, providing a basketball court to a community that was severely lacking in recreational spaces. Having failed to convince the public schools to invest in large gymnasiums for young ballplayers, Dr. Henderson was extremely grateful when the Rosenwald Y was constructed.

A student studyinh in a dorm room at the 12th Street YMCA, circa 1910-1930
Photo credit: Library of Congress via Addison N. Scurlock

We also spoke to Rabbi Howard A. Berman about the Reform synagogue Julius Rosenwald attended in Chicago, which was headed by the dynamic Rabbi Emil Hirsch. Hirsch kept Temple Sinai at the forefront of progressive Judaism by breaking down cultural barriers with other Chicago communities, harshly criticizing racism and experimenting with radical ideas like services on Sunday. By way of explaining just how far ahead of the curve Hirsch, Sinai and Rosenwald were, Berman related this anecdote:

[Rabbi Emil Hirsch] asked Jane Addams to preach the sermon during one of those Sundays [at Sinai]. This was regarded as the first time that a woman–let alone a woman, but a non-Jewish woman–would speak from a Jewish pulpit. Her topic was the moral imperative of birth control for women in the 19th century. This was an unbelievable kind of a combinations of factors. If you wanted to have the perfect storm of shock value, it happened in Sinai Temple sanctuary on that particular Sunday. But that was very much Hirsch’s vision.

Rabbi Howard A. Berman
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, March 25, 2014

Our final interviewee of the day is a Professor of English at the George Washington University in Washington D.C. Lisa Page teaches Langston Hughes’ poetry in her university courses and she graciously related some stories of Hughes’ life during his two Rosenwald Fund fellowships (1931 and 1941).

Aviva Kempner and Lisa Page, March 25, 2014
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, March 25, 2014

Page grew up in Chicago nearby the Museum of Science and Industry, one of the most visible legacies of Julius Rosenwald. Rosenwald paid for the reuse of the historic 1893 World’s Fair building and the new museum, which original bore his name. You can read more about the Museum of Science and Industry’s history on our blog here. Page had some great memories about attending the museum as a child that she shared with us:

The Museum of Science of Industry was our playground, my sister and I, growing up. Every weekend, especially in Chicago in the winter when you can’t be outside it’s so cold. The Museum of Science and Industry was a few blocks away from our house, so every Saturday we headed to the museum of Science and Industry and lived there. We lived inside the human heart, the coalmine. We’d go see the baby chicks. All of these wonderful exhibits that you got to interact with. The whisper gallery. We just went over and over again to these same places. The German submarine, Colleen Moore’s dollhouse. We just lived down there dreaming of shrinking down to size and being able to live in that palace that she put together. It was this wonderful place for us to be.

Chicks hatch every day at the Museum of Science and Industry, showing genetic diversity at work
Photo credit: Lenny Flank (flickr)

Thanks to all our great interviewees!

**NEW** Rosenwald Schools Work in Progress to screen at DC JCC

March 27th, 2014

Julius Rosenwald with Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee, 1915

The Ciesla Foundation has been busy creating a brand new work in progress version of The Rosenwald Schools, which will be screened for the very first time at the Washington D.C. JCC on April 13th at 11 AM. If you can make it to the J for this event, you’ll see a 9 minute rough cut of the opening section of the upcoming film, depicting Julius Rosenwald’s father Samuel’s experience as an newly arrived immigrant in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest United States during the 19th century. This special sneak peek is a great opportunity to see what’s new with the The Rosenwald Schools production.

The DC JCC is at 16th and Q Streets NW in the District of Columbia. This even is free and open to the public.

Here’s a description of the event, from the JCC’s website (where you can RSVP):

Work-in-Progress Screening and Talk:

Local filmmaker icon Aviva Kempner shows an excerpt of her most recent work: a nearly-completed documentary on Julius Rosenwald, the Chicago Jewish businessman and philanthropist who joined with African American communities in the South to build schools for them during the Jim Crow era. The film celebrates a great Jewish and African American partnership that sprung from the South Side of Chicago.

Kempner accompanies the film excerpt with an in-depth conversation about the challenges of finding and evocatively using a combination of archival feature footage (Dr. Quinn: Medicine WomanThe Frisco Kid, and Young Mr. Lincoln) to bring to life over 150 years of history. See how film greats such as Henry Fonda, Harrison Ford, Jane Seymour, and Gene Wilder help uncover little-known American Jewish history, and catch a sneak peek at the yet-to-be-released documentary.

Co-sponsored by Docs In Progress, The Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, and Women in Film & Video.

Before “The Rosenwald Schools”… “Becoming American” at Philly’s Jewish Culture Museum

March 18th, 2014

I had a wonderful time last week at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. I visited the museum for the opening of “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American,” a great new exhibit that shows how the game of baseball has impacted American minority communities over the past century. My 1999 film, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, commemorates the uncommon devotion Jews had for the first great Jewish slugger, Hammerin’ Hank. NMAJH’s new exhibit strikes a similar tone, commemorating the reverence for Jewish ballplayers felt by lifelong fans. We were thrilled that the exhibit asked for two key interviews from my film and its DVD extras.

I was also honored to write the chapter on Hank Greenberg for the companion book to the exhibit, Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American. Josh Perelman edited together a great group of essays about “Becoming American” through baseball for the book. I contributed a chapter to the book entitled “Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg: Call Him the Hero of Heroes.” You can get more details about the book–and also buy yourself a copy–here.

Here are some snapshots of the exhibits featuring Hank Greenberg:

A display of Hank Greenberg memorabilia

The headline image for the exhibit, Hank admiring a long ball off his own bat

An excerpt from my interview with Arn Tellem that appeared in The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

A “ladder” of the great Jewish ballplayers comes down to a face-off between Hank and Sandy Koufax. This chart was made by baseball aficionado Dan Okrent who went to school with me in Detroit.

By Aviva Kempner

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg to screen in Silver Spring, Maryland

March 18th, 2014

The AFI Theater in Silver Spring is screening a series of baseball films in March and April, including one of the Ciesla Foundation’s previous productions, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1999). Their description is below:

April 6, 2014 at 5:15 pm
AFI Silver Theatre, Silver Spring, MD

Tickets $5!
In person: filmmaker Aviva Kempner

This Peabody Award-winning film is a humorous and nostalgic documentary about an extraordinary baseball player who transcended religious prejudice to become an American icon. Hammerin’ Hank’s accomplishments for the Detroit Tigers during the Golden Age of Baseball rivaled those of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. America’s first Jewish baseball star was a beacon of hope to American Jews who faced bigotry during the Depression and World War II.
DIR/SCR/PROD Aviva Kempner. US, 1999, b&w and color, 95 min, 35mm. RATED PG
Co-presented by the Washington Jewish Film Festival and Women in Film & Video of Washington, DC.