New interviews for the Rosenwald Schools – August, 2014

August 27th, 2014

On August 20th, we added a new interview for The Rosenwald Schools with Elsa Smithgall, an expert on Jacob Lawrence, and a follow up interview with Stephanie Deutsch, author of You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South.

First we interviewed Ms. Smithgall, a curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. who is organizing an upcoming exhibition of the complete Migration Series, painted by Jacob Lawrence during his Rosenwald fellowship. It’s rare to see the series all together, because in February of 1942, after being shown at Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New York, the 60 panels were divided; half were purchased by the Phillips and half by MoMA. For the upcoming exhibition curated by Ms. Smithgall, the panels will be reunited and the series will be displayed in its entirety at both the Phillips Collection and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


Elsa Smithgall of the Phillips Collection with Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2014

As Smithgall explained, the series, which depicts the epic migration of African Americans to the industrial north in the early 20th century, was divided among even and odd panels for the two galleries. This was done to preserve as much as possible of the narrative thrust of the series’ sequence in both halves of the collection. Adele Rosenwald Levy (daughter of Julius Rosenwald) played in central role in MoMA’s acquisition of half the panels, and she pushed for that half to be the even panels because a certain panel, number 46, spoke to her. The panel depicts the cramped living conditions new migrant workers faced at labor camps, and both Smithgall and our second interviewee Stephanie Deutsch mused on what aspect of the painting elicited such a strong reaction from Levy.

Smithgall also related the remarkable fact that Lawrence, who created an indelible portrait of the South in his Migration Series, had not personally visited the South before painting the series. Although, according to Smithgall, Jacob Lawrence “was aware of the impact of the negative conditions of the South” he hadn’t yet seen it first hand when he captured it in his own “direct and distilled” way in the 60-panel Migration Series. However, Lawrence’s parents had participated in what’s known as the “Great Migration” and he had observed the challenges faced by the new African American population in New York City and his native New Jersey.

Although we did discuss Lawrence’s Migration Series, and especially panel number 46, with our second interviewee, Stephanie Deutsch, we changed gears a little bit to talk about Julius Rosenwald’s school-building program. Rosenwald is best known for his financial contributions to over 5,000 rural schools for African Americans and for his innovative challenge grants that multiplied his investment, but less well known is his personal interest and encouragement of the communities his fund supported. As Stephanie said:

One thing I’m very struck with is that [Rosenwald] made a personal commitment to these schools. He was a very busy man, but he often travelled down south to visit the schools. These schools were all in very rural areas–they’re hard to get to now–so a hundred years ago it was quite a commitment on his part to make a point of going to visit the schools to see the students who studied there, the parents, the community that would gather to welcome him. That was something that impressed Rosenwald very much, that the schools didn’t just benefit the children, they benefited the whole community.

We had Rosenwald’s journeys south in mind on Saturday when we visited, along with Stephanie, a Rosenwald School on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Although today the journey is not as treacherous as it was 100 years ago, it was a long trip from Washington, and it reminded us how remote many of these schools were, especially the ones built in tiny rural communities like San Domingo, Maryland. This trip will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.

More bad news for Sears Holdings

August 27th, 2014

According to The New York Times, Sears Holdings, owner of Sears and Kmart stores, lost “nearly a billion dollars” in the first half of this year. Although recent retail earnings among its competitors have been “lackluster” across the board, Sears has performed among the worst. While Sears has worked to expand its “Shop Your Way” rewards program, with personalized deals for loyal shoppers and improve its online sales, it has lagged behind competitors in both these arenas as well.

It’s been tragic to watch the once dominant mail order (and, later, retail) giant’s decline over the years. During Julius Rosenwald’s tenure as head of Sears, the company capitalized on emerging technology in the field of mail order marketing to become a retail bohemoth. Unfortunately, as catalogue-based purchasing decreased, Sears lagged behind other companies like Walmart and Amazon.com in expanding and innovating new retail paradigms like the big box store and online mail order shopping.

Click here to read more at The New York Times.

Color photos by Gordon Parks of 1950s segregation to be exhibited in Atlanta

August 15th, 2014

We wrote about Gordon Parks’ “Segregation Series” last June, following the surprising rediscovery of the complete series, which Parks produced for LIFE magazine in the 1950s and which was thought to be lost.

Starting November 15th, according to The New York Times, the High Museum in Atlanta is mounting an exhibition of this series that they’re calling “Gordon Parks: Segregation Story.” The exhibit will be open until June 7, 2015.

Many of the powerful photographs in this collection have never before been seen in a gallery. Out of the more than 40 color prints depicting segregation, a select few were published in a 1956 LIFE Magazine article. From the examples we’ve seen in the media, these photographs, by the first recipient of a Rosenwald grant for photography, offer a truly unique illustration of the segregated institutions of the Jim Crow South.

Read more at The New York Times.

New novel approaches “passing” with a modern twist

August 13th, 2014

According to a review in The New York Times, the debut novel of author Jess Row, Your Face or Mine, (to be released this week) uses the science fiction concept of “racial reassignment surgery” as a jumping off point to a rumination on race and identity in the modern world. “Passing” as a member of another race is a familiar literary theme, mainly found in African American literature of the 20th century, like the works of Rosenwald fellows James Baldwin and James Weldon Johnson. Writing for the the Times, Felicia R. Lee explains:

A fan of James Baldwin’s work, Mr. Row said he set out to have “Your Face in Mine” explore the ways people try to escape their racial identities, as well as investigate their desire for racial reconciliation and deeply unconscious fears and discomforts around race.

“Passing” has been a major theme in African-American literature for over a century, and has usually meant blacks living as whites to escape bias. “Your Face in Mine” owes something to classic stories of passing like “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” by James Weldon Johnson (published anonymously in 1912 and under his name in 1927), and the 1931 satire “Black No More,” by George S. Schuyler, in which blacks rush to embrace a new scientific process to become white.

Read more about the new novel at The New York Times.

A dinner with Julian Bond

August 12th, 2014

Writer Kelly Kleiman wrote an amusing account about meeting Civil Rights icon Julian Bond recently over dinner. It was published on the Ten Miles Square blog at Washington Monthly.

Kleiman bond-ed with Bond by talking about the Rosenwald Fund and Julian’s father, Horace Mann Bond’s involvement with it. Julian Bond, who inspired the making of The Rosenwald Schools and serves as a consultant, is interviewed in the upcoming documentary.

Happy birthday to Julius Rosenwald today!

August 12th, 2014


Julius Rosenwald in 1917
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing Collection

Today on August 12th would have been Julius Rosenwald’s 152nd birthday. As I am close to finishing The Rosenwald Schools I am confident that J.R. will become nationally known for his good deeds once the film is done. Every week we are receiving notice about a school being restored or how a group of people want to rebuild one. I believe that once this film is done there will be an urge to finish many more schools and know more about J.R. By his 153rd birthday the film should be traveling around the country.

Carter G. Woodson memorial on the way in Washington D.C.

August 4th, 2014

The Northwest Current reported last month that plans to create a memorial to Carter G. Woodson in the District of Columbia are moving forward. The city council is reviewing plans that were recently approved by the National Capital Planning Commission.

Why Woodson? Woodson was a prominent African American educator, writer and historian who is perhaps best known today for promoting the first Negro History Week in the mid-1920s, a celebration of African American history that lives on today in Black History Month. Woodson lived for many years in Washington D.C. and his historic home, which is owned by the National Park Service, is only a few steps from the proposed memorial site at Q and 9th Streets, NW.

In 1927, around the same time he founded Negro History Week, Woodson completed the first history of the Rosenwald Fund’s school-building program (which was winding down and would end in 1932). The Rosenwald Fund opened its archives (which present a rich demographic picture of rural African American communities in the early 20th century) and provided funding to Woodson to complete this important historical work. Woodson’s work was never published, but the manuscript is stored with the Rosenwald Fund Papers at Fisk University in Nashville.

At this same point in his life, while living in Washington in the mid-1920s, Woodson also crossed paths with a young Langston Hughes. Through a friend of his mother’s, Hughes got a job as Woodson’s personal assistant and began doing clerical work in Woodson’s office. Hughes writes in his autobiography that despite realizing the importance of Woodson’s research, he disliked the position so much that he soon quit and began work at the Wardman Park Hotel. Woodson was a good literary connection for Hughes, but the job at the Wardman Park Hotel gave him the opportunity to become the famous “busboy poet,” when he slipped three of his poems to a critic named Vachel Lindsay who was dining at the hotel. Lindsay introduced Hughes to publishers who would later print some of his most famous works.

Woodson was a great historian and a great Washingtonian. Kudos to the city for recognizing him with a new statue and memorial park.

Restored home and garden in Lynchburg a “window” into the Harlem Renaissance

July 31st, 2014

Adrian Higgins writes for The Washington Post about the historic home of African American poet Anne Spencer. Spencer lived most of her life in segregated Lynchburg, Virginia, and her Victorian home became a salon of sorts for Harlem Renaissance figures. Her social circle contained many past Rosenwald fellows as well, like Marian Anderson, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. In Lynchburg, Spencer formed a local chapter of the NAACP and spoke out against segregation on public transportation. Spencer’s home and garden has been restored by the combined efforts of her descendants and a Lynchburg garden club, and both can be visited today.

Read more at The Washington Post.

Rosenwald Schools spotlight: Newberry County, South Carolina

July 30th, 2014

Recently, our intern Nat McMaster visited three Rosenwald Schools near his hometown in South Carolina. The three are in varying states of repair, but Nat captured the beauty of each with his photographs. His report and photos are below:

1. Howard Junior High School ~ 431 Shiloh Street, Prosperity SC

Also known as the Shiloh School, Howard Junior High School – located on the property of Shiloh African Methodist Episcopal Church – served African-American students from in and around Prosperity between 1925 and 1954. It features four distinct classrooms, an assembly area, and large walls of windows on the front and back of the building. In the 1930s, two classrooms were added to the original structure and connected by a dogtrot.

Currently, Shiloh AME Church is the process of renovating the school for use as a social hall and other church functions. The school itself is not open to visitors, but you are welcome to wander around the surrounding cemetery and take pictures.

Howard Junior High School is listed on the national register of historic places.

2. Hannah Rosenwald School ~ 61 Deadfall Road, Newberry SC

Located south of Newberry on the property of Hannah AME Church, Hannah Rosenwald School is also known as the Utopia School, after the surrounding community. The school features three classrooms, three cloakrooms, and an entry hall. It is notable for being built on a north-to-south orientation, whereas most schools in South Carolina were built east-to-west. Hannah School was closed in the 1960s when rural county schools were consolidated with the Newberry and Silverstreet school systems.

Though it currently sits in disrepair and houses some old church furniture and other assorted items, the Hannah AME Church is looking to Heritage Preservation Services for a grant to begin renovation. The church also possesses the marble dedication tablet, which reads ROSENWALD SCHOOL, ERECTED 1925.

Hannah Rosenwald School is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

3. Hope Rosenwald School ~ 1971 Hope Station Road, Pomaria SC

Though a total of 26 Rosenwald Schools were built in Newberry County alone, Hope Rosenwald School is one of only a few to be completely renovated. The school is located on the property of Saint Paul AME Church, outside Pomaria, and serves as a community center for the surrounding area.

It was constructed in 1925 on land sold to Newberry County by the Hope family for a mere five dollars. It was consolidated with the Newberry school system in 1954. The building contains two main classrooms, a kitchen (formerly an “industrial room”), and two cloakrooms. There is no known outhouse or privy to have been located on the property; if there was one, it was lost even before the consolidation of the schools. Three batteries of large windows adorn the front of the building, and two adorn the rear, however no windows are located on the sides of the building.

Hope Rosenwald School is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

More about the history and design of the schools is on the S.C. Dept. of Archives and History website. All photographs belong to Nat McMaster and the Ciesla Foundation.

Douglas Brinkley to appear twice in Washington D.C.

July 30th, 2014

Douglas Brinkley, who (with Johnny Depp) co-edited and wrote the introduction for the 2013 posthumous release of Woody Guthrie’s lost novel, House of Earth, will discuss his new book (co-written with Luke Nichter) The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 at two locations in the District of Columbia next week. House of Earth was a powerful novel written by Guthrie under his Rosenwald fellowship in the early 1940s.

First on August 6th at 7PM, Brinkley and Nichter will be at Politics and Prose, a bookstore in Northwest Washington. Then, on August 8th at noon, the two will appear at the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives.


Douglas Brinkley in 2007
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons