New interviews of The Rosenwald Schools: December 30, 2014

January 6th, 2015

We recently filmed our last interviews for the film, sneaking them in before the end of the year. David Stern, Julius Rosenwald’s great-grandson, and Julian Bond graciously sat for some additional insights. David Stern offered more insight into Rosenwald’s life and career, as well as his great-grandfather’s innovative approach to philanthropy. Civil rights leader Julian Bond contextualized Rosenwald’s involvement in African American issues in the early part of the 20th century and detailed the many ways the Rosenwald Fund supported African Americans.

From left to right: Marian Hunter, Julian Bond, David Stern, Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation

Marian Sears Hunter, depicted on the left, is doing a tremendous job editing the film.  Held hostage in the editing room for weeks, Hunter is proving once again her skills.  She edited The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.

We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing over 100 scholars, activists, Rosenwald school alumni and their descendants, and Rosenwald family members for this film. With our final interviews complete, and the production stage of the film over, we can focus all our energy on the final, final editing of the film and getting ready for the premiere on February 25th as part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival. See you there!

Forgotten Gordon Parks Photos Of His Hometown Discovered

January 2nd, 2015

In 1950, while working for Life magazine, Gordon Parks returned to his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas to photograph his classmates from the segregated Plaza School. Parks previously received a Rosenwald fellowship in 1942 to work at the Farm Security Administration. Known for his striking images that highlighted racial issues in America, Parks’ portrait of his former classmates offers a glimpse into the lives of African Americans on the cusp of the civil rights movement. Although the series was originally intended to be a Life cover story, the magazine never published the photographs, which were soon forgotten (you can read about another discovery of lost Parks’ photographs in a previous blog post).

An article in The New York Times details how the photographs were uncovered in the archives of the Gordon Parks Foundation by a curious curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The museum will be opening an exhibition of the lost photos on January 17. The photographs themselves depict intimate moments from the lives of Parks’ now-adult classmates, most who were struggling to survive under the burdens of racism and segregation. Accompanying the photographs are Parks’ own words, his notes possibly intended as an introduction in Life magazine. Although there is no official explanation for why the story never ran, the exhibit’s curator speculates the spread was too political and newsworthy for the magazine.

Nat King Cole featured in new book

December 29th, 2014

A new book, “Driving the King” by Ravi Howard, offers a glimpse into the struggles of the early civil rights movement through the eyes of Nat King Cole and his fictitious best friend, Nat Weary. Although the novel is set among the backdrop of real events, such as the Montgomery bus boycotts, the specifics of Mr. Cole’s experiences during the 1950s are admittedly made up. A reviewer in the New York Times points out, ”But even this book’s distortions suggest a man whose story remains barely told, while few white singers of his day are without up-to-date biographers.” While Nat King Cole may be lacking the recognition an authentic biography affords, suggesting perhaps the racial barriers he faced in his career and reflected in the novel still linger today, his popularity is hardly forgotten. Timuel Black, an interviewee in The Rosenwald Schools, fondly remembers Nat King Cole as one of the many illustrious African American celebrities who visited the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments. Cole is pictured in the film along with other Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartment visitors Langston Hughes and Marian Anderson.

Read more about the book here

Powerful new dramatic Civil Rights film to open on Christmas

December 23rd, 2014

Selma is a dramatic film about a courageous chapter of the Civil Rights movement in Alabama when Rev. Martin Luther King led the march for voting rights. Starring Giovanni Ribisi, David Oyelowo, Tim Roth, Oprah Winfrey and Cuba Gooding Jr., Selma will open this week in a limited theatrical run. I got a chance to see an advance screening of this powerful and moving film last night and I highly recommend you see it when it plays at a theater near you. The film includes the brave story of Civil Rights icon John Lewis, played by Stephan James, who risked his life fighting for Civil Rights in Selma in 1965 to obtain our most basic voting rights for African Americans.

Rep. Lewis was interviewed and will appear in our upcoming film The Rosenwald Schools.

Rosenwald fellow’s mural a touchstone in historical representation of the Amistad

December 23rd, 2014

The “Talladega Murals,” completed by future Rosenwald fellow Hale Woodruff in 1938, have been on tour since 2012 in galleries all over the country. This traveling exhibit is an amazing chance to see these great works, and we’ve reported on their progress here on this blog over the past couple years.

One of Woodruff’s mural on display in Washington D.C.
Photo credit: The Washington Post

Michael E. Ruane, writing for the Washington Post, recently reviewed the exhibit in its current location, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The article, which includes quotes from National Museum of African American History and Culture experts like Jacquelyn D. Serwer and Kinshasha Holman Conwill (both of whom were interviewed for our upcoming documentary, The Rosenwald Schools), is well worth a read. Ruane tells the story of the Amistad slave ship revolt and explains how Woodruff’s paintings of it revived interest and became an important historical touchstone for representation of the unique and powerful event. As Conwill puts it in the article, the murals depict “the rarest of moments in 19th-century history [...] the triumph of Africans over their enslavement that is a success.”

You can read more about the exhibit, Woodruff and the Amistad at the Washington Post.

Great find in the Lessing Rosenwald collection at the Library of Congress

December 19th, 2014

We came across something remarkable at the Library of Congress this week. One of our researchers was there to look at some photos of Lessing Rosenwald, who donated a collection of rare books that has been one of the key components of the Library of Congress’s Rare Book and Special Collections division since his death in 1979. Born in 1891, Lessing was the first child of Julius and Augusta Rosenwald, and followed in his father’s footsteps in the 1930s as president of Sears Roebuck.

Lessing in July 1913 with Edith Goodkind, who he would marry in November of that year
Photo credit: Courtesy of Peter Ascoli

Descendants of the Rosenwalds talk about the divide between Lessing, Adele and Edith Rosenwald, who grew up in a close-knit middle class household, and Marion and William Rosenwald, who came of age after Julius Rosenwald had made his fortune at Sears. Unlike Lessing, Adele and Edith, Marion and William felt a certain distance from their parents as Julius and Augusta’s social and civic obligations began to take up more and more of their time.

Julius Rosenwald with his son Lessing, circa 1895
Photo credit: The estate of Nancy Salazar

Staff at the Library of Congress recently came across Lessing Rosenwald’s “baby book,” a beautiful volume that contains pictures of Lessing as a baby with his two sisters and mother, handwritten notes by his parents about his weight, when he started crawling, and even a lock of his hair from his first haircut. This amazing album sheds some light on the loving family circle Lessing grew up in and it’s a great complement to his legacy, the Rosenwald Room at the Library of Congress and the remarkable collection he so generously donated to the institution.

Augusta Rosenwald with her first three children, Edith, Adele and Lessing
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection archive

Thanks to the staff at the Library of Congress for making this great collection available to all!

Strong words from John Lewis on the “Other America” and from Charlene Drew Jarvis on the “narrative about race”

December 19th, 2014

Rep. John Lewis of Georgia wrote about the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases in The Atlantic on Monday.

There is a growing discontent in this country. And if the fires of frustration and discontent continue to grow without redress, I fear for the future of this country. There will not be peace in America. I do not condone violence under any circumstance. It does not lead to lasting change. I do not condone either public rioting or state-sponsored terrorism. “True peace,” King would tell us, “is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

Rep. John Lewis, who attended a Rosenwald School as a child, will appear in our upcoming documentary The Rosenwald Schools.

Rep. John Lewis during our 2013 interview with him
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September 2013

Charlene Drew Jarvis, the daughter of Rosenwald Fund fellow Dr. Charles Drew, also shared her insights on the troubling current events recently, in an address to the Metropolitan Chapter of the Links Inc. Here’s an excerpt of her speech, which was published in The Washington Post:

The narrative about race is changing. Witness the CBS national news just last night in which two young whites acknowledged that they never had to think about race as they went about their daily lives, but they understood that the African Americans on the panel think about race all-of-the-time. Their ability to empathize, to put themselves in the shoes of African Americans, is a very important part of better communication between the races.

Jarvis was also interviewed for The Rosenwald Schools on the Rosenwald Fund’s timely assistance of her father Dr. Drew’s graduate study and his later innovations in banked blood.

Charlene Drew Jarvis during our 2012 interview with her
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, May 2012

Rosenwald Fund fellows Kenneth and Mamie Clark fought segregation

December 15th, 2014

In November, The Rosenwald Schools work in progress screened in Sarasota, Florida. We blogged about the event, which was attended by Kate Harris, the daughter of two famous Rosenwald Fund grant recipients. Kate’s parents, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, were psychologists who worked together to provide evidence for the crucial case of Brown v. Board of Education.

Kate recently reached out to us through email. She understands the importance of the Rosenwald Fund grants, affirming that they “had a major impact on the education of generations of children… just as the Rosenwald Schools did.” Kate also sent these great photos of her parents over the years:


Photos courtesy of Kate Harris

Rosenwald Schools director Aviva Kempner appears at Jewish Folk Arts Festival

December 10th, 2014

On Saturday, Aviva Kempner, director of upcoming documentary The Rosenwald Schools, joined an excellent list of workshop presenters at the 2014 Jewish Folk Arts Festival in Rockville, Maryland. A great audience packed the room to see Aviva present the work in progress version of The Rosenwald Schools, and gave the screening a warm reception. Other than a little mishap on the way there (Aviva and our editor, Marian Hunter got lost) it was a great day. Thanks to the Jewish Folk Arts Festival for putting on a great event!

Another ‘parlor party’ for The Rosenwald Schools

December 9th, 2014

Last Saturday night, Josh Levin and Debra Fried Levin generously hosted a parlor party for me to help fundraise for The Rosenwald Schools, The Ciesla Foundation’s upcoming documentary that is now in post-production.

Photo credit: Adina Kole

I interviewed Debra last year along with her husband Josh for The Rosenwald Schools. Debra and Josh went on an unusual first date. Knowing that she had written her master’s thesis on Julius Rosenwald, Josh took Debra to various sites around Chicago related to Rosenwald’s life: his Kenwood home, the Sears plant he built on the west side and even his grave in Rosehill Cemetery.

Photo courtesy of Debra Fried Levin

I had a great time meeting all of the people the Levins invited. It was good to hear feedback on the work in progress, which screened at the party. One of the attendees, Wayne Firestone, had this to say on Facebook:

After a week of uniformly disturbing news in our country, last night we saw a documentary in progress by dc filmmaker Aviva Kempner about Julius Rosenwald who helped finance 5000 African American schools run by Booker T Washington in the deeply segregated South in the 1920′s. We had a much needed lift of hope as well from speaker Aaron Jenkins who runs DC’s Operation Understanding that promotes ties between blacks and Jews.

Debra Fried Levin and Josh Levin

Thanks to all who attended. If you would like to hold a fundraising parlor party, please contact We would be most grateful for help in finishing the film and you would be listed among the end credits. The Ciesla Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and all contributions are tax-deductible.