Congratulations to a very deserving Oscar-winner

March 5th, 2014

Mazel tov to Steve McQueen and the whole creative team behind 12 Years a Slave. The Ciesla Foundation team is thrilled that the film won Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at last night’s Academy Awards and that Lupita Nyong’o was honored as well with the Best Supporting Actress award.

Slavery was the insidious American legacy that Julius Rosenwald responded to in his giving

The significance of this win was best described to me by former D.C. Council Member Charlene Drew Jarvis, who was interviewed about her father, Dr. Charles Drew, for our upcoming documentary, The Rosenwald Schools:

“And the whole membership voted for best picture. Folks are ready to let the tragedy of slavery really pierce their consciousness, and perhaps their consciences.”

Visionaries of Black Education: Julius Rosenwald & Dr. E.B. Henderson

February 21st, 2014

The Ciesla Foundation, D.C. Basketball Institute and the Historical Society of Washington D.C. joined forces last Thursday night for a very special Black History Month event. Clips from the work in progress of Aviva Kempner’s upcoming documentary, The Rosenwald Schools, were screened along with the trailer of the exciting upcoming documentary (produced by Pennington Greene, John Ershek and Bijan C. Bayne) Supreme Courts: How Washington DC Basketball Changed The World.


From left: Bijan Bayne, Pennington Greene, Aviva Kempner, Stephanie Deutsch, Bob Kuska and Edwin B. Henderson II.
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

The panel, moderated by Bijan Bayne and consisting of Aviva Kempner, Stephanie Deutsch, Bob Kuska (author of Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Basketball and Changed America’s Game Forever) and Edwin B. Henderson II (grandson of Dr. E.B. Henderson) shared their knowledge on a wide variety of topics. Ms. Kempner spoke about what drove Julius Rosenwald to support black education, Ms. Deutsch discussed the shared interest of J.R. and Booker T. Washington in black YMCAs, Mr. Kuska talked about the rise of basketball in early 20th century urban neighborhoods and Mr. Henderson shared some amazing anecdotes about his well-known grandfather, an educator, basketball coach, and as we learned, a prolific newspaper editorialist. It was also great to hear from Bijan Bayne about his new project.


From left: Bijan Bayne, Aviva Kempner, Edwin B. Henderson II, unknown, Bob Kuska, Stephanie Deutsch and Pennington Greene
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

The panelists’ projects all overlap at the 12th Street YMCA, a building funded by Rosenwald, where Dr. Henderson played and coached and where many great young players who contributed to the vibrant D.C. basketball scene (the subject of Supreme Courts) got their start.

Thanks to the panelists for illuminating these historic connections.

New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools

February 20th, 2014

Marian Anderson was one of the most beloved of the Rosenwald grant artists, so we knew we needed a great interview for the film with an expert on her life. We found that expert in Dr. Dwandalyn Reece, curator of Music and Performing Arts at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, who spoke to us a few weeks ago on January 30th. Reece gave us a good background on Anderson and spoke about the timeliness of her Rosenwald grant (you can read more about Anderson’s 1930 trip to Europe on a Rosenwald grant in a previous blog post). Especially poignant was Reece’s description of Anderson as a “reluctant icon.” Anderson became an icon of the period before Civil Rights when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall in 1939 and Anderson instead gave a free concert on the National Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial.


Dr. Dwandalyn Reece of the Smithsonian
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, January 30, 2014

What did it mean for Marian Anderson to be a “reluctant icon”? Anderson “was not political,” said Reece, “but she had a sense of responsibility.” During her performance at the Lincoln Memorial, Reece explained, Anderson “didn’t like all the drama that was going on with the D.A.R., but she realized what it meant to people.” Anderson was not a vocal activist, but after she was turned away from Constitution Hall her amazing performance at the Lincoln Memorial became a prominent symbol of the pressing need for equal rights for African Americans. Don’t forget that in April, a tribute concert will be held on the National Mall in honor of this iconic performance.

Eleanor Roosevelt, a close acquaintance and admirer of Marian Anderson, resigned from the D.A.R. in protest of its decision to bar Marian Anderson from performing. We also had the honor on January 30th of speaking to two descendants of the first lady about her involvement in African American causes before Civil Rights. Both Eleanor Seagraves (Roosevelt’s granddaughter) and Anna Seagraves Fierst (her great-granddaughter) spoke eloquently about the Marian Anderson concert and her relationship with their grandmother, but they also surprised us with some new and interesting information about Mrs. Roosevelt’s involvement with the Rosenwald Fund.


Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson in 1953
Photo credit: National Archives via Wikimedia Commons

Eleanor Roosevelt served on the board of the Rosenwald Fund from 1940 to 1948. You can read about her most important contribution during this tenure (her support of the effort to build an airfield for the Tuskegee Airmen to train on) in a previous post on this blog. However, during her 8 years on the board of the Rosenwald Fund, she got into some other interesting things as well. This was the golden era of the Rosenwald Fund fellowships, and Roosevelt probably sat in on meetings where board members distributed grants to the up and coming luminaries of African American art and research, names like James Baldwin, Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison.

In her interview, Eleanor Seagraves zeroed in on a different Rosenwald fellow from this time period, Woody Guthrie. Guthrie is probably the most well-known white recipient of a Rosenwald grant (although we have written about others on this blog, like Thomas Sancton). We wrote about about his work as a Rosenwald fellow in a previous blog post, and our recent visit to Fisk (which holds records about all the Rosenwald fellows) yielded new information about this time in Guthrie’s career, which will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.


Eleanor Seagraves with Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, January 30, 2014

Seagraves explained that Eleanor Roosevelt was pleased that the Rosenwald Fund was able to offer a grant to Guthrie because she had “long been interested in American folk culture and loved folk singing and dancing herself.” Guthrie’s fellowship was an opportunity for Roosevelt and the Fund to patronize this art form that so often provided little remuneration to artists. Through its gifts to a small set of white artists like Guthrie, Seagraves explained, the Rosenwald Fund extended its reach beyond African American art into the broader culture of America.

Anna Fierst, Eleanor’s great-granddaughter, spoke on another lesser-known aspect of Roosevelt’s support of Civil Rights through the Rosenwald Fund. In addition to his duties as administrator of the Rosenwald Fund, Edwin Embree (who had been handpicked by Julius Rosenwald to shepherd the foundation after he passed away) was a prolific and opinionated writer on African American and philanthropic issues. One of his most successful books was about cotton tenancy, a system that Ms. Fierst referred to more bluntly as “cotton plantation servitude.” When Embree’s book was published, Fierst said, Eleanor Roosevelt made sure that her husband got a copy. Indeed, many of the ideas that informed FDR’s reforms of the cotton tenancy system were drawn from Embree’s work.


Tanya Bowers of the National Trust for Historic Preservation
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, January 30, 2014

Our other two interviews of the day were on very different topics. First, Tanya Bowers, director of diversity at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told us about her experience working on the Rosenwald Schools Initiative. This is an ongoing effort by the National Trust to pool the resources of community and corporate partners and save as many of these “National Treasures” as possible. Ms. Bowers had already been promoting the project for some time when one day she realized (while browsing Fisk University’s Rosenwald School Database) that her own grandmother had attended a Rosenwald School in Darlington, South Carolina.


The restored Cairo Rosenwald School in Tennessee
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February 4, 2014

It was great to hear from someone with a broad knowledge of Rosenwald School restoration efforts, and Ms. Bowers made an interesting point about demographics. One of the things Bowers sees as a “major challenge” for restoration efforts is that in many cases, the communities that contain Rosenwald Schools are no longer populated by African Americans. Whether because of large-scale African American migration out of southern states or just local suburbanization, many communities with historic Rosenwald Schools have undergone demographic change since they were built. If only a handful of the current community members have a personal connection with a school, you might think the door would be open for neglect of these structures. However, Bowers was happy to report that in several instances, she’s seen “a cross-cultural effort; black and white folk getting together to preserve these Rosenwalds.”

Our final interview was with author Gordon Weil. Decades ago, Weil published a great history of Sears Roebuck and is one of the foremost experts on the broad arc of the company’s history. He also has a new book out about Civil War General Oliver Otis Howard.


Gordon Weil
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, January 30, 2014

Weil talked about the complementary management styles of Richard Sears and Julius Rosenwald. Sears had founded the company and his skill in advertising and sales had jump-started Sears Roebuck to early success. However, his lackadaisical management style, misleading advertisements and strategy of making sales before he had procured inventory limited the company’s potential. Rosenwald, who came into Sears Roebuck with his brother-in-law when Richard Sears had run out of cash and needed an infusion of capital, brought a new style of management. According to Weil, Rosenwald “understood how to run a company properly, all aspects of the company–sales, supply, operations–and that was a huge contribution.” Soon, Rosenwald became president of Sears, balancing the books, leading the company to the first ever retail IPO, getting advertising costs under control and doing away with deceptive business practices such as false advertising. This was a huge contribution – as Weil put it, because of his excellent management, Rosenwald “[moved] Sears Roebuck from being a 19th century small company into a 20th century huge company.”


Julius Rosenwald, unknown date
Photo credit: Peter Ascoli

Sears Roebuck’s huge rate of growth was due to a change in delivery technology – a new, massive market for mail-order retail opened up with the addition of rural free delivery to the USPS and the company was able to capitalize on it. However, as in the “dot-com” era, only those companies with solid business practices and steady management (like Amazon or eBay) could survive beyond the initial boom opened up by a technological breakthrough. Without Rosenwald’s managing prowess, Sears Roebuck could have very well not become the retail juggernaut that it was in the first half of the 20th century.

As always, we thank our interviewees for generously donating their time and knowledge to our documentary.

Newborn descendants of Julius Rosenwald take his name

February 19th, 2014

Two of Julius Rosenwald’s grandchildren paid homage to the illustrious philanthropist by naming their new babies after him. Recently, Julius Kim Varet was born on January 16, 2014 in California. He would be the great-great grandson of Julius Rosenwald.


Julius Kim Varet

On January 15, 2012, Julius Cogburn Deutsch, was born in Washington, D.C. He would be a great-great-great grandson of Julius Rosenwald.


Julius Cogburn Deutsch

Research and filming for The Rosenwald Schools in the “Music City”

February 12th, 2014

Last week, the Ciesla Foundation’s Aviva Kempner and Michael Rose took a much-anticipated trip to Nashville to work on The Rosenwald Schools production. The purpose of the trip was bifold. The first was to explore the archives of Fisk, an historically black university that holds the Rosenwald Fund’s papers. After beginning in Tuskegee as a result of Booker T. Washington’s collaboration with Julius Rosenwald, the Fund’s school-building program was headquartered in Nashville for most of its duration. The second purpose was to film the alumni of a very special Rosenwald School located 35 miles northeast of Nashville in Cairo, Tennessee. Local historian Velma Brinkley coordinated our visit with alumni who still live in the area and about 15 former students graciously traveled out to their old school to talk to us on a cold, rainy day in early February.


Alumni gathered in front of the Cairo Rosenwald School
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

One of the best surprises of the trip to Cairo was brought to us by Lester Mae Hill, an aluma of the school. When we first arrived at the Cairo School, Ms. Hill and Ms. Brinkley showed us the school’s collection of historic photographs. In one of the photos (pictured below) Ms. Brinkley pointed out a mostly obscured photograph of Julius Rosenwald hanging above the door. While we have often read of Rosenwald’s portrait hanging in a place of honor in the schools he helped to fund, this was the first photographic evidence we’ve come across.


Students at the Cairo School. Ms. Hill is first on the left.
Photo credit: Cairo School alumni, unknown date

When we showed interest in the portrait of JR, which we didn’t see on the wall, Ms. Hill told us she had it stored in a safe place and immediately ran home to get it. Within a few minutes, she returned with a lovely, large portrait of the Sears president and educational benefactor. Some of her family members had taken the photo when the school was being remodeled and Ms. Hill was pleased to return it to its rightful place above the school’s front door. One former student told us that when he attended the school he was told it was of a benefactor of the school but did not know the name of Julius Rosenwald until recently.


Lester Mae Hill with the Cairo School’s portrait of Mr. Rosenwald
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

For this shoot we worked with a Nashville-based crew, Chris Conder and Steve LePard. Chris and Steve did some great work for us despite the chilly conditions in the Cairo School, which has inadequate heat for the cold spell Tennessee was experiencing during our trip.


Aviva Kempner and Chris Conder lining up a shot in the Cairo School
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

At the Cairo School we filmed 5 individual interviews with alumni and some group conversations. Interview topics ranged from everyday life at the school (cooking meals, playing sports and the school’s “privies”) to their childhood understanding of segregation and the struggles they went through to gain an education in a society that openly discriminated against African Americans. Many of the alumni mentioned that the entire Cairo community pitched in to support the school any way they could, and they all spoke fondly of their teacher, Professor Brinkley, who showed an uncommon dedication to his students and would often buy extra milk for students who could not afford it. His own children, including Frnak who we interviewed, all became educators.


Aviva Kempner speaking the Cairo School alumni about our documentary project
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

In addition to filming the Cairo School alumni, we spent the better part of 3 days poring over the documents and photos that make up the Julius Rosenwald Fund Papers in the Special Collections section of Fisk’s Franklin Library. We found some great photos, including one of Julius Rosenwald with some children in front of a Rosenwald School. We plan to share it as soon as we secure permission. We couldn’t have done it without the help of Special Collections Librarian Aisha Johnson, and we’re very grateful to her. Ms. Johnson, who’s studying the Rosenwald Fund’s lesser-known library-building program, informed us that the Rosenwald Fund Papers are not only the biggest collection at Fisk’s library but also its most requested. Regular readers of our blog will know that we often link to Fisk’s outstanding Rosenwald Schools database, an online catalogue of construction information, funding totals, dates and images of virtually every Rosenwald School constructed under the Fund’s school-building program. It’s an easy to use database that should be stop number one for anyone looking into the history of a specific Rosenwald School.


Aviva Kempner with Aisha Johnson, just before Ms. Johnson’s interview
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

Along with Ms. Johnson, we also filmed interviews with the Dean of Fisk’s Franklin Library, Dr. Jessie Carney Smith, archivist volunteer Michael A. Powell, Fisk professor Dr. Reavis Mitchell and Middle Tennessee State University’s Dr. Mary Hoffschwelle, who has written a wonderfully well-researched and informative study of the school-building program called The Rosenwald Schools of the American South. Between visits to the library, we also got a chance to tour a bit of the historic Fisk campus. While looking at the 1873-built Jubilee Hall, we started talking to a student who turned out to be an official campus tour guide, and she gave us a little of the history of the building. While the all-female dorm’s “courting room” is no longer used for that purpose, the residents of Jubilee Hall still do keep a curfew.


Entrance to Jubilee Hall
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

The centerpiece of Fisk’s campus is Cravath Hall, which houses a beautiful and renowned collection of permanent murals by the great artist (and Rosenwald fellow) Aaron Douglas. Today the former library is used as the university’s administration building, but we were able to walk in and view the lovely Douglas murals in the old card catalogue room.


Aaron Douglas mural above built-in card catalogue
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

All in all, a great trip to Tennessee. It was made even better when we found a great Jewish deli right behind our hotel.


Noshville, on Broadway in Nashville’s West End
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, February, 2014

By Aviva Kempner and Michael Rose

Rosenwald School alumni in Tennessee look to draw attention to their old school

February 11th, 2014

A report by a local news station in West Tennessee about a group of alumni from a Rosenwald School in Trenton, Tennessee caught our eye recently, and not just because our crew visited the state (to film at the Cairo Rosenwald School and to do research at Fisk University Special Collections) just last week. Our visit was a great success and will be the subject an upcoming blog post.

According to the report by WBBJ ABC 7, the alumni group has pushed for their alma mater, the Trenton Rosenwald School, to be included on the National Register of Historic Places for over a year. Although the story doesn’t explain why they have as yet been unsuccessful in their campaign for recognition from Tennessee’s Historic Preservation Office, it may be that they have hit a snag on the “integrity” portion of the National Register’s evaluation criteria. In order to be registered, a property should closely resemble its appearance during its period of significance. Judging between Google’s Street View of the property and two historical photographs, (one from Fisk University’s Rosenwald School database and one from the Tennessee State Archives website), its facade appears to be have been substantially altered some time since its construction in the late 1920s.

If anyone has more information about the alumni group’s efforts, please post a comment on our blog. Best of luck to the group in their campaign, as we know recognition of Rosenwald Schools on the National Register can both raise awareness about a community’s history and build momentum to preserve increasingly rare historic treasures.

The Rosenwald Schools work in progress to screen at upcoming D.C. event

February 11th, 2014

The Historical Society of Washington D.C. presents “Visionaries of Early Black Education and Basketball: Julius Rosenwald and Dr. Edwin B. Henderson,” a special Black History Month event that will take place at the historic Carnegie Library (801 K Street NW) on Thursday, February 20th from 6:00 to 8:00 PM. A full flier (PDF format) is available here.

The evening promises a fascinating glimpse of the origins of basketball in the District. After Julius Rosenwald collaborated with Washington’s African American community to build a YMCA, Dr. Edwin B. Henderson (an influential physical educator) organized the new Y’s first basketball team. Henderson, who earned the moniker “the grandfather of black basketball,” is just one of the basketball greats connected with the YMCA: as we learned in an interview with Norris Dodson a year ago, John Thompson, Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing also graced its walls.


The 12th Street YMCA, Washington, D.C.
Photo credit: Michael Rose, March, 2012

We wrote about how Rosenwald came to support D.C.’s storied 12th Street YMCA in a previous blog post, and we have since shot interviews in the historic structure with local preservationists Lori Dodson and Norris Dodson. The modern building, built for the black residents of Washington, was the first of 24 YMCAs that Rosenwald supported with challenge grants between 1911 and 1933.

The program is co-sponsored by The Ciesla Foundation, the D.C. Basketball Institute, and the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Get your tickets today ($10/HSW member; $15 non-member)!

Featured films clips include:

  • The Rosenwald Schools, a work in progress produced by Aviva Kempner
  • Basketball, More than a Game: the Story of Dr. Edwin B. Henderson, a short film produced by Beverly Lindsey-Johnson
  • Supreme Courts: How Washington DC Basketball Changed The World, trailer produced by Pennington Greene, John Ershek and Bijan C. Bayne

Panelists will include:

Moderated by: Bijan Bayne, author, Elgin Baylor: The First Superstar

The Rosenwald Schools work in progress to screen in Takoma Park, MD

February 11th, 2014

This Thursday, February 13th, The Rosenwald Schools filmmaker Aviva Kempner will join Stephanie Deutsch (author of You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South) will join a group of alumni of the Takoma Park Colored School, a Rosenwald School that stood less than a mile from the District of Columbia on Geneva Avenue in Takoma Park. The event, which will include musical selections from the Takoma Park Community Band, a panel discussion, and a screening of Aviva Kempner’s documentary work in progress The Rosenwald Schools will take place at 7:30 on the Thursday at the Takoma Park Community Center Auditorium (7500 Maple Ave).

Click here to read a flier (PDF format) for the event. For more information on the historic school’s funding and layout, you can consult Fisk University’s excellent Rosenwald School database, which has an entry for the Takoma Park school and for 14 other Rosenwald Schools that were built in Montgomery County, MD.

Upcoming Marian Anderson tribute concert in Washington D.C.

January 31st, 2014

The Washington Post reports that Marian Anderson, one of the most notable of the long list of Rosenwald fellows, will soon be honored with a tribute concert at Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall. Anderson famously performed a concert on the National Mall in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused her request to perform at the segregated Constitution Hall, which at the time accepted only white performers.

The upcoming event (“Of Thee We Sing”) will be held on April 12 of this year and will feature soprano Jessye Norman, WPAS’s Men and Women of the Gospel, soloist Solomon Howard and others.


Marian Anderson in 1947
Photo credit: Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress

In March of last year, we wrote about Marian Anderson’s 1930 Rosenwald fellowship, which she used to make two trips to Europe. These early trips to Europe developed her international reputation as a top flight contralto at a time when African American singers struggled to find acceptance at major concert venues in the U.S.

You can read more about the tribute concert at The Washington Post.

The Calvert Rosenwald School, Texas

January 21st, 2014

The Calvert Colored School, a C-shaped, red-brick building with an auditorium and stage, opened in 1929 for children in 1st through 11th grade. Previously “most black children attended elementary grades in the ‘plantation’ schools and only attended to the 8th grade at most,” according to the Tour Guide of Historic Calvert. The Calvert Colored School’s first principal, W.D. Spigner (spy-g-ner), inspired the local African American community and convinced the school board to make improvements such as indoor plumbing in 1948, the addition of a 12th grade class in the early 1930s, and a gymnasium in 1957. As annual enrollment climbed to 375, around half the senior class went on to college, often at historically black Texas colleges such as Prairie View A&M and Huston-Tillotson University. The school’s most famous former student is Tom Bradley, who was elected mayor of Los Angeles.


The Calvert Colored School, now a multi-purpose center in Calvert, Texas
Photo credit: Hollace Ava Weiner, 1/14

The school building became an elementary in the 1970s and was renamed W.D. Spigner Elementary, in honor of its longtime principal. In 2010, the school closed due to declining enrollment city wide. The school district gave the land and the building to the Calvert Colored W.D. Spigner Alumni Association Inc., which is based in Calvert and is turning it into a multi-purpose center. The association holds its quarterly board meetings and annual reunions on the premises.


James Whitaker, Calvert Class of ’56, president of the alumni association
Photo credit: Hollace Ava Weiner, 1/14

Alumni president James Whitaker, Class of ’56, recalled that all of his school teachers lived in the surrounding neighborhood and knew each child’s family. “The teachers were committed. They expected more,” he said. “Today’s students feel their teachers are not committed. Ours kept the bar high.” He reminisced about helping the janitor shovel coal. “Every room had a heater. Around 1950 they put in gas, which was lousy!” Whitaker didn’t realize how good an education he got at Calvert until he entered the military and began comparing himself to other young men from around the nation. Like many students of Rosenwald Schools, Mr. Whitaker only became aware of Julius Rosenwald’s impact on black education later in life; during his military assignment at Tuskegee.


Detail from the Calvert School
Photo credit: Hollace Ava Weiner, 1/14

By Hollace Ava Weiner

Update: February 6, 2014. Corrected the date that a 12th grade class was added to the school and the location of the school’s alumni association.