Exhibit at MCA Chicago features Rosenwald Apartments

July 16th, 2014

A new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago reportedly features recently-shot footage of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, built by Julius Rosenwald in 1929 on Chicago’s South Side.

According to MCA’s exhibition listing, the video installation, Unititled (Structures), by Leslie Hewitt and Bradford Young “is comprised of a series of silent vignettes, filmed at sites connected to the Civil Rights movement and the struggle for racial equality in the United States.” The present day images that Hewitt and Young have filmed of these locations in Memphis, Arkansas and Chicago belie their historic significance and cast a static, anti-nostalgic eye at structures that are still heavy with symbolism.

Although we haven’t been able to visit MCA yet, we got a tip from someone who attended the exhibition that the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments appear in the installation. Based on the description, images of the storied apartment complex should fit into the installation’s thematic context. At the time of its construction, the Rosenwald Apartments represented a significant step forward for African American housing opportunities in the city of Chicago, and modeled a way towards decent housing for all. Today “The Rosenwald” lies dormant and unheralded, just another vacant structure in a part of the city that is accustomed to derelict buildings and vacant lots. Fortunately, there is a plan in the works to rehabilitate the complex and provide affordable housing and retail space.

The Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments in 2007
Photo credit: SilverRaven7 (flickr)

Get more details on the exhibit at MCA’s website. MCA will hold an event with Leslie Hewitt on August 23rd and the exhibit will be open until August 31st.

Alabama community gathers Rosenwald School memorabilia for new Smithsonian

July 16th, 2014

Gene Thornton, an alumnus of the Randolph County Training School, is reaching out to members of his community for any historical items or images they may have salvaged from their school before it closed in the 1970s. RCTS was a Rosenwald School built in 1919, and historic materials from the school have been requested for an exhibit at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

Read more at The Randolph Leader.

The HistoryMakers collection to be acquired by Library of Congress

July 16th, 2014

The HistoryMakers, a huge archive of interviews with African Americans (both famous and not) who accomplished great things, will be added to the collection of the Library of Congress soon, according to The New York Times.

The archive, which contains over 9,000 hours of video interviews with 2,600 interview subjects, is an important historical endeavor and captures the stories of many amazing individuals, including some who have since passed away, such as Maya Angelou and Ruby Dee. Clips of the HistoryMakers interviews with Angelou and Dee can be viewed in the New York Times article linked above.

Adding these materials to the Library of Congress should ensure their preservation and open them up to easier access by viewers from the public as well as researchers and documentary filmmakers. Before he passed away in 2006, photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks sat for a HistoryMakers interview. In the interview, he discusses his fellowship from the Rosenwald Fund that helped his photography career early on. We hope to use this footage in our upcoming documentary, The Rosenwald Schools.

The founder of The HistoryMakers, Julieanna Richardson, should be commended on her vision and the years of work it took to realize it. Read more about this new stage of the HistoryMakers at The New York Times.

Rosenwald School spotlight: Pleasant Plains School

July 16th, 2014

In May, we spotlighted the Rosenwald Schools of Pender County, North Carolina on this blog. Today we turn our attention to the northeast corner of the state: the Pleasant Plains School of Hertford County. Marvin T. Jones recently recounted the history of the school for us:

Pleasant Plains Church was founded in 1851 by free people of color who were mixed-race. In order to establish the church, A local White Baptist church oversaw the church and the pastor had to be white. During the Civil War, at least 40 men from the Pleasant Plains community joined the United States Colored Troops. After the war, the church founded its school in 1866. Four schools later came out of Pleasant Plains Baptist Church and the school: the Cotton School, the Walden School, the Union School and what became the 12-year Calvin Scott Brown School, the first high school in the region for people of color. I attended Brown for 9 years and transferred to a previously all-white high school.

Around WWI, the Rosenwald Fund encouraged Pleasant Plains Church to build a successor schoolhouse, the Rosenwald school that I am now working to preserve. In 1950, the county closed the school and sold it to the church for $1. Since then it has served as a community center, and it is now dormant.

The church, Pleasant Plains Baptist, where I am a member, has accepted my proposal to preserve the schoolhouse. The first steps are just now being made. On June 27th an NC State Historic Preservation officer will visit the site and advise us. Part of my proposal is to put the building back in use by the church and community.

The Pleasant Plains Rosenwald School in the 1980s
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Marvin T. Jones

As with all Rosenwald Schools, the African American community in Pleasant Plains partially funded the construction of the school (40% of constructions costs in this case, according to the Rosenwald Database at Fisk University). But community involvement didn’t end at the funding of the school. Here’s an account of daily life at the school that really showcases the way the community stepped up to support it.

It was a true family school in which teachers and parents cooperated in various aspects of the school experience. According to former student Calvin Weaver, a family living across the road from the school provided wood for the pot-bellied stove in each classroom and made the fire early in the morning before teachers and students arrived. In summertime the mothers gathered together to can string beans, corn, lima beans, and tomatoes for their children’s lunches. On cold winter mornings they took turns sending jars of food to school. After organizing the day’s lessons, the teacher opened the jars, poured the contents into a large pot, and set the pot on top of the stove to warm. Because the room was cold, the contents took a long time to heat. By lunchtime, however, the pot was warm and everyone enjoyed the delicious soup made from vegetables their own mothers had canned.

From Black Heritage Sites: The South, by Nancy C. Curtis, 1996.

The Pleasant Plains Rosenwald School, circa 1940
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Marvin T. Jones

A portrait of Julius Rosenwald, which was a feature of many Rosenwald Schools, still hangs in the Pleasant Plains Rosenwald School:

Julius Rosenwald’s portrait in the Pleasant Plains School
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Marvin T. Jones

Interestingly, this portrait seems to be identical to the one Lester Mae Hill retrieved for us at the Cairo Rosenwald School in Tennessee when we visited earlier this year:

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

The Pleasant Plains Rosenwald School can be found near the junction of US-13 and Pleasant Plain Road in Hertford County, North Carolina (between the towns of Winton and Ahoskie). Many thanks to Marvin Jones for sharing these pictures and this information about his school.

eBay find – James Weldon Johnson and Julius Rosenwald

July 15th, 2014

Recently, while searching online for vintage copies of books written under Rosenwald fellowships, we came across a truly unique copy of the very first book written under a Rosenwald fellowship. Black Manhattan, written by James Weldon Johnson in 1930, is a sociological study that traces the history of African Americans in New York City up until the 1920s.

James Weldon Johnson in 1932
Photo Credit: The Library of Congress, Carl Van Vechten Collection

The copy for sale on eBay (for $7,500.00 or best offer) is not just a first edition. Its title page is also signed by Johnson to none other than Julius Rosenwald, “with great admiration and deep regard.”

Below is a screenshot of the auction listing, in case it disappears. Click the image for a larger version.

It’s amazing what can turn up on eBay. This is an artifact that really showcases the historical impact of the Rosenwald Fund’s fellowship program.

Rosenwald fellow’s work a key part of Corcoran collection

July 15th, 2014

A few weeks ago, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. announced a new partnership with the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University that will radically change the makeup of the historic museum. As the Corcoran prepares to enter into a new phase of its existence, The Washington Post asked chief curator Philip Brookman to talk about some of the works of art that have made the gallery what it is today.

One of the works Brookman, who we interviewed last year about Rosenwald fellow Gordon Parks, mentioned was by another Rosenwald fellow, Aaron Douglas. In 1996, Brookman remembers, the Corcoran Gallery acquired “Into Bondage”, a panel from a mural by Douglas that depicts slaves being led to ships in chains. According to Brookman, this was “a moment of important collecting,” for the Gallery, which has an outstanding collection of African American art.

You can see and read about the rest of the works of art named by Philip Brookman and Corcoran’s manager of curatorial affairs Lisa Strong here.

Interview with Rita Dove – July 2014

July 14th, 2014

On July 1st, director Aviva Kempner had the pleasure of interviewing the poet Rita Dove for our upcoming film, The Rosenwald Schools. Dove, who has won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and served as the United States Poet Laureate, gave a wonderful interview. She told us about several of the luminaries who received Rosenwald fellowships early in their careers: Marian Anderson, Robert Hayden, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston.

In her interview, Dove delved into the particulars of Langston Hughes’ two Rosenwald fellowship periods, beginning in 1931 and 1941. During his first Rosenwald fellowship, Langston traveled to almost every Southern state to do poetry readings at black colleges and universities. When he received the Rosenwald fellowship in 1931, Langston was living at the Harlem Rosenwald YMCA. The grant money allowed him to purchase a car and print copies of his work to bring along on his trip South. Click here to see a picture of Langston in front of his new car, at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Dove related the origins of Langston’s journey to the South in her interview. It was Mary McLeod Bethune who influenced him to undertake the trip, suggesting that there were many residents of Southern states who weren’t aware of his work and would respond strongly to it. Stephanie Deutsch (author of You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South) recently blogged about Mary McLeod Bethune’s connection to another Rosenwald fellowship recipient, Zora Neale Hurston. The 135th anniversary of Bethune’s birth was last Thursday (July 10th) and she has a statue in Washington D.C.’s Lincoln Park.

Mary McLeod Bethune in 1938
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing Collection

While in Alabama, Langston held a reading at Tuskegee and also visited the Scottsboro Boys on death row. We wrote about this important visit in November of last year, on the occasion of their posthumous pardon by the state of Alabama.

In her interview, Dove pointed out how important it was for African American artists of that time to travel South:

Many artists who grew up in the Midwest or the urban north in fact were the progeny from the Great Migration. For them to go south was a very, very brave thing [and] sometimes it ended up producing remarkable work.

Dove described this as a theme in the Rosenwald fellowships. Artists like Hale Woodruff, Eldzier Cortor and Jacob Lawrence (who made the amazing “Great Migration” series) used their Rosenwald grants to travel the South and depict it in their artworks. In fact, Dove herself grew up in Ohio, and she poignantly described her experience visiting Georgia for the first time as a child in the early 1960s.

Rita Dove, poet
Photo Credit: The Ciesla Foundation, July 2014

Many thanks to Rita Dove for agreeing to be interviewed and for hosting our crew in her home.

Legendary actress and activist Ruby Dee passes away

June 13th, 2014

CNN reports that Ruby Dee, the remarkable actress and Civil Rights activist, passed away peacefully on June 11th at her home in New Rochelle, New York.

During the 1960s, Dee was acquainted with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. With her husband Ossie Davis, she was a key figure in the 1963 March on Washington.

Ossie, who passed away in 2005, will be featured in our film, The Rosenwald Schools, talking about Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Davis was a student at Howard University in Washington D.C. in 1939. He was inspired by the optimism of Anderson’s rendition of My Country, ‘Tis of Thee on the National Mall, a wonderful performance made more poignant by the D.A.R.’s refusal to allow her to appear at Constitution Hall. Ossie, who passed away in 2005, was filmed discussing the concert for a 1993 documentary entitled The Great Depression discussing the impact of Anderson’s concert on him as a young man.

Ruby Dee was a remarkable actress of stage and screen for more than half a century, starring on Broadway and in films like 1989′s Do the Right Thing and 1961′s A Raisin in the Sun. We will include excerpts from the latter film in The Rosenwald Schools‘ section on Chicago’s crowded “kitchenette” apartment buildings.

Ruby Dee with Sidney Poitier in the 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

New documentary about Jensen, who designed grounds of Rosenwald’s Ravinia home

June 9th, 2014

A new documentary by filmmaker Carey Lundin, entitled Jens Jensen: The Living Green will be shown at Millennium Park in Chicago on June 19th, with a simultaneous broadcast on the Chicago area public television channel WTTW.

The film is about Jensen, a Danish-born landscape architect, naturalist and designer of many Chicago area green spaces. In addition to Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory and Columbus Park, Jensen designed two parks on the north shore connected with the Rosenwald family. We’ve written about them on this blog. Jensen designed the estate of Julius Rosenwald’s suburban home in Ravinia (which today lives on as “Rosewood Beach”) and was a close acquaintance of Augusta Rosenwald, who has a commemorative boulder in the town of Highland Park’s downtown pocket park, “Jens Jensen Park.”

Lundin’s film looks to be an excellent history of Jensen’s life that also brings out what his work can offer for those designing and improving today’s urban spaces. For more information about the screening in Chicago, go to jenjensenthelivinggreen.org.

Rosenwald connection at the National Gallery of Art

June 9th, 2014

Ever since the new Degas/Cassatt show opened at the National Gallery of Art here in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago, I’ve been meaning to check it out. The NGA came up recently on The Rosenwald Schools production when I interviewed Linda Levy, whose grandfather Lessing Rosenwald (JR’s first son) donated a substantial amount of art to the venerable gallery.

Lessing Rosenwald in later years
Photo credit: The estate of Nancy Salazar

Because I had two good reasons to visit the NGA this weekend I decided to make the trip with my editor, Marian Hunter. When I arrived at the gallery, I asked a tour guide where I might find Lessing Rosenwald’s contributions to the museum and she directed me to Room 75 upstairs.

It was only once I arrived at the “Lessing Rosenwald Room” that I realized his donated artworks were part of the wonderful temporary exhibition of works by Degas and Cassatt. Six pieces donated by Rosenwald have made their way into this show.

It’s great to know that Lessing Rosenwald’s contributions to the NGA remain vital and interesting to museum-goers and remain publicly available, as was his wish. Rosenwald also donated many materials to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., and they have a “Rosenwald Room” that is set up to resemble Lessing’s reading room at “Alverthorpe,” his home in suburban Philadelphia (which is now a park belonging to the borough of Jenkintown, PA).

The Degas/Cassatt exhibition is open at the NGA until October 5th, so take the time to visit before then.