Posts Tagged ‘ciesla foundation’

New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools – May in New York

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

We added five great interviews to our project (the upcoming documentary The Rosenwald Schools) at a two day shoot last week in New York City. First up was George C. Wolfe, Tony Award-winning playwright and director, known for Broadway productions like Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, last year’s Nora Ephron-written Lucky Guy and the 2005 HBO film Lackawanna Blues.

FEROCIOUS CONFIDENCE

Wolfe was born in Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, a state where over 150 Rosenwald Schools and schools had been built with the support of the Rosenwald Fund. By 1932, over 100,000 African American schoolchildren had been educated in a Kentucky Rosenwald School. Wolfe, who was born in 1954, was part of the generation after the Rosenwald Schools’ biggest impact. By the time he started school, the Rosenwald-funded school in his community had been replaced with a more modern building where his mother was a teacher. The school Wolfe attended was nonetheless officially known as the Rosenwald School, probably in recognition of the importance of the previous school, which was still extant when Wolfe was a child. Wolfe treasures his time at “Rosenwald,” and he shared some of his formative experiences there with us. For example:

It became the mission of all the teachers at Rosenwald to make sure we were fortified and that we were confident and that we were able to go forth into the world. I remember at one point we were invited to perform at this other school, and we were singing this song. And I remember very specifically the lyrics: “These truths we are declaring, that all men are the same. That liberty’s a torch, burning with a steady flame.” And [our principal] told us that when we got to the line, “That liberty’s a torch, burning with a steady flame,” if we sang it with full conviction, we would transform all the energy in the room, we would cause all the white people in the room to shed their racism. So I remember very specifically us singing this song, “These truths we are declaring, that all men are the same.” And then we got to this line and we practically screamed it: “That liberty’s a torch, burning with a steady flame.” And it wasn’t so much that it happened, the amazing thing about that story for me is that we believed it. I’ve gone on to work in theater and film and to become a writer, and her saying that to me, to us, at that time lives inside of me to this very day and informs the kind of work that I do and the kind of work that I believe in. In many respects I received the grounding or the nurturing or the watering of the seeds that I became at that school, from those extraordinary teachers, who were all so committed and so dedicated and so ferociously involved in making the students feel special. And I don’t think I would become the person I became had I not gone to that school.


George C. Wolfe with Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, May 6, 2014

“GENERAL MERCHANDISE”

Next up, we filmed a granddaughter and two great-granddaughters of Julius Rosenwald. First we interviewed Elizabeth Varet, daughter of William Rosenwald, the youngest child of five born to Julius and Augusta Rosenwald. Varet related a funny story that we first read about in Peter Ascoli’s biography of Julius Rosenwald about J.R.’s service in World War I. Along with some other business magnates, Rosenwald moved to Washington during the war and advised the federal government on procurement for the troops, taking a salary of a dollar per year. In 1918, he sailed to Europe and toured the U.S. military camps in France dressed in military fatigues, but with no insignia or marking of rank. According to Ascoli, J.R. was uncomfortable in the uniform and often used it to get a laugh in the opening remarks of his speeches to the troops.


Aviva Kempner with Elizabeth Varet, granddaughter of Julius Rosenwald
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, May 6, 2014

Toward the end of J.R.’s trip, he crossed paths at a camp with Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Early one morning, Secretary Baker was meeting with the various military personnel at the camp. Elizabeth Varet picked up the story there:

This is told by my grandfather: as Secretary Baker came down the aisle, he said that each general should step forward, salute and introduce himself – “I’m General So-and-so.” And then they came to my grandfather and as a dollar a year man, a businessman, he didn’t have any insignia. And he stood forward and said, “I am General Merchandise.”

This line got a big laugh and became a family story for years to come. Although Rosenwald never served in combat, he proved extremely valuable in his advisory capacity and by all accounts was a hit at the French camps he visited in 1918. At the National Archives, we recently came across a silent film produced by the Department of Defense that captured one of Rosenwald’s speeches to the troops. Since it’s so rare, it’s always exciting to find footage of Rosenwald, but we typically can’t share it on the blog due to copyright concerns (although last April we shared another brief glimpse of J.R. found at the National Archives). Here’s JR addressing an unknown U.S. encampment in France:


From “Activities and Reviews at Headquarters S.O.S., Tours, France, 1918-1919″
Credit: NARA Local Identifier 111-H-1448

THE BOOK COLLECTOR

Each of Julius and Augusta Rosenwald’s children went on to achieve significant things in their lives. Elizabeth Varet’s father William helped three hundred members of the extended Rosenwald family in Europe escape the Nazis during World War II. Marian Rosenwald Ascoli and Adele Rosenwald Levy devoted their lives to charitable causes; Marion to health services for children and Adele to the Museum of Modern Art and supporting Holocaust survivors through the United Jewish Appeal. And Edith Stern was a major supporter of the cause of Civil Rights for African Americans in New Orleans, as we learned from our interviewee, Anne Hess, and from Cokie Roberts, who we interviewed last September.


Linda Levy, granddaughter of Lessing Rosenwald
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, May 6, 2014

Perhaps the most well-known of the Rosenwald children, however, was their eldest, Lessing Rosenwald. Lessing, who was an avid collector of rare books, prints and engravings, is remembered today for the collections he donated to the Library of Congress and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. His invaluable donations include the Giant Bible of Mainz, drawings and engravings by Albrecht Dürer and William Blake and etchings by Rembrandt.

Lessing had 19 grandchildren, most of whom grew up in the Philadelphia area where he spent most of his adult life. We spoke to one of his grandchildren, Linda Levy, who had many fond memories of visiting her grandfather at his home in Jenkintown, a suburb north of Philadelphia. Linda mentioned that Lessing did work at Sears (at their Philadelphia plant) but that his real passion was rare book collecting. Lessing always told his grandchildren he felt very fortunate to be able to make his life’s work something he loved. As Linda put it, Lessing

…greatly respected, greatly admired the books that he had and the prints. When I saw my grandfather Lessing take a book out of the case, it was with such love, such reverence, admiration, respect for this artifact. The books and prints were in very good hands when they were in Lessing’s hands.

The interview shoot was a reunion of sorts for the three Rosenwald descendants. Linda and Elizabeth hadn’t seen each other in awhile and I was glad they got a chance to catch up and discuss their remarkable family tree.


Elizabeth Varet and Linda Levy
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, May 6, 2014

“ROSENWALD SCHOOLS” IN LIBERIA

The third Rosenwald descendant we spoke with was Anne Hess, the granddaughter of Edith and Edgar Stern. Anne shared stories about her grandparents’ progressive support for voting rights in New Orleans during the 1930s and 1940s, but her own experience following in the footsteps of her famous great-grandfather, Julius Rosenwald, caught our attention:

[Julius Rosenwald] viewed education as the path to equality. In addition to that, he viewed one of the responsibilities of wealth as doing responsible things with it. About five years ago, I had the opportunity to help with an effort to build more schools in Liberia. The method that my great-grandfather used was that the community in the South had to put the land up, had to want to have the school there and had to participate in making the school a reality. In Liberia, they had the same model without knowing that it was connected to my great-grandfather. The community had to identify the property, they had to be willing to oversee the construction of the schools and then the government would provide the funding for the teachers and the materials. I went around to my various family members, cousins of which I have many, and raised enough money for a school in Liberia. There’s a Rosenwald School in Northern Liberia, and to this day it operates and serves children in a very rural area.

It’s inspiring to see that this kind of philanthropy that Julius Rosenwald innovated, built on matching grants and community involvement, still works today.


Aviva Kempner with Anne Hess, granddaughter of Edith and Edgar Stern
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, May 6, 2014

THE “ROLLING STORE MAN”

Our final interviewee was Eli Evans, author of several books on the Jewish experience in the South. Eli painted a picture of the history of the “special relationship” between Jews and blacks in Southern states. After talking about the tragic Leo Frank case (which resulted in the lynching of a Jewish factory manager) and Civil Rights partnerships between Jews and blacks, Eli went back to the very beginning of their interactions, when Jewish peddlers and shopkeepers began to do business in the 19th century South.

Slaves who had been mistreated often by whites, [began] discovering a white man who was different than any other they’d ever met. He spoke with an accent, he came to them to sell and be kind to them. He did not own slaves, he had never owned slaves. He came to serve and he also brought news from elsewhere. Like a visitor, he brought trinkets for the children, and everybody was excited when he came. A black writer whose parents had been slaves told me that the name for the Jews who came was the “rolling store man,” because he drove horses in a carriage. It’s a wonderful image to me: you can see the people running out of the house, kids running out of the house saying, “The rolling store man is here.” There was a relationship, there’s no question about it, a relationship on both sides. There’s stories of [Jewish peddlers] who left their kosher cooking gear with the same family every time because they knew they would come by there to spend the night and they needed that to eat with. It’s sort of wonderful story, but it’s true also. It was one of the elements in the development of the relationship between blacks and Jews which became a very special one through history.


Aviva Kempner with Eli Evans
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, May 6, 2014

Thanks to our great interviewees and the new crew we worked with: Roger Grange, Dan Bricker and Judy Karp.

The Rosenwald Schools work in progress screens in Maryland

Wednesday, April 30th, 2014

Historic Takoma and We Are Takoma invited Aviva Kempner (director of The Rosenwald Schools documentary) and Stephanie Deutsch (author of You Need A Schoolhouse and a consultant on our film) to take part an excellent program about a historic school in Takoma Park, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C. The event, entitled “Takoma Park’s Black School & The Rosenwald Legacy,” was held at the Takoma Park Community Center on April 29th.

Attendees first heard musical selections by African American composers, played by the Takoma Park band. One of the selections was “Lift Evr’y Voice and Sing,” by James Weldon Johnson, the recipient of the first Rosenwald fellowship. Then, Diana Kohn (the event organizer) introduced the night’s discussion topic. A work in progress excerpt of the upcoming documentary, The Rosenwald Schools, was then screened for the audience.


The Takoma Park Band
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, April 2014

After the screening, Aviva and Stephanie discussed their work and the history of the two-room Rosenwald School that was built in Takoma Park on Geneva Avenue. Alumni from the school were present and shared their memories of attending the school.


Alumni of the Geneva Avenue Rosenwald School
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, April 2014

Thank you to Diana Kohn, Historic Takoma and We Are Takoma for making this event possible.

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

Thursday, 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:
CAPTURING 150 YEARS AGO: THE ROSENWALD SCHOOLS

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.

Congratulations to a very deserving Oscar-winner

Wednesday, 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

Friday, 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

Thursday, 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.

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

Tuesday, 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

Bill Cosby supports Thurgood Marshall College Fund

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Old time TV fans are thrilled with the news that Dr. Huxtable, AKA Bill Cosby, is plotting a return to television. We can only speculate that an irritable and loveable grandfather character is in the works. And admirers can watch his new act starting on Comedy Central this past weekend.

Lucky for some of us in Washington, DC we saw him recently in person as the Master of Ceremonies at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s 25th Awards Gala. Dr. Bill Cosby at 76 was in perfect form as the hilarious MC for this worthy organization.

In August of this year, the head of the Fund, Johnny Taylor, participated with me on the education panel at “Reflections on Jewish and African American Civil Rights Alliances,” a conference co-sponsored by the Ciesla Foundation.


Johnny Taylor and Bill Cosby at the TMCF Gala

In a traditional vaudeville-like bit, Cosby set up the Fund’s staff person, budding actor Christopher Lopez, as his straight man. Lopez, thinking he was just handing the comedian notes on the script backstage, found himself right next to Cosby onstage and answering his comic questions. Just like in the old days of comedy, the two entertained the jam-packed audience with their exchanges.

Lopez described how the “entire night was unscripted.” He said “my role was to be the innocent, sweet handler/stage manager (this is why in the beginning of the night, I came out with my active headset on) and he said he will be Bill Cosby.” Cosby’s concept worked and a star was born.

The organization itself supports rising stars. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund offers African American students merit and need-based scholarships to attend public Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). TMCF has made a huge difference providing scholarships to needy students since 1987.

Remember the Rosenwald Fund also supported such HBCU institutions like Tuskegee, Fisk and Dillard.

Especially gratifying to see were the young students dressed to the nines and sprinkled at tables throughout the Washington Hilton Hall. Two gave moving testimonies of how important their scholarships were to them.

Civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis was also there signing autographs in his latest book, graphic novel March. An extra special treat was a free copy of his book as well as a big chocolate kiss as door prizes. Soviet expert Susan Eisenhower was also in attendance.

Also speaking was the tiara wearing, gorgeous new Miss America, Nina Davuluri, who plans to attend medical school after her reign. She admitted to entering the contest because there was a scholarship that comes along with the crown. The first Indian American to win the beauty contest, Davuluri is destined for a great future.

In a scene right out of another classic TV favorite, The Millionaire, Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup and Chairman of TMCF’s board, announced during the dinner a grant of one million dollars to the organization. He explained that it was his wife Susan who impressed upon him the need to give generously to the scholarship fund. This kind of spontaneous giving makes for many future Cinderella college tales and reminds us of Julius Rosenwald’s giving.

The Fund’s President Johnny Taylor was beaming from the dais. He described why Cosby was the perfect master of ceremonies. “Dr. Cosby’s commitment to higher education generally, and HBCUs in particular, is unmatched. He and his straight man, Christopher Lopez (a former TMCF Leadership Institute Scholar), entertained the crowd and helped us raise $3.8 million to support publicly-supported HBCUs and their deserving Student Scholars.”

Washington attorney and film producer Thomas Hart, the Director of Strategic Planning for TMCF, has introduced a new initiative of a bilateral student exchange program with Israel. Hart explains how “the bilateral student and faculty exchange will allow a deeper understanding of cultural differences in an environment that fosters leadership skills in diplomacy and public policy. In the long run, this exchange will contribute to the improvement of the relationship between the United States and Israel.” Again reminiscent of the great African American and Jewish alliance during Rosenwald’s time.

Jennifer Holliday, famous for her role in Dreamgirls, sang to the crowd. An extra high note treat was a local Wilson High School junior, Paris McMillian, who also belted out notes. Like an audition in The Voice, she brought the house down for her rendition of the national anthem. Count that as another star is born.


Jennifer Holliday at the TMCF Gala

Beaming at the evening’s success was former board member Noel Hankin, who was a Miller Lite brand manager. He claimed, “We created the Thurgood Marshall College Fund as a way to make education the centerpiece of our community involvement. It is consistent with research confirming that people identify education as the best way for corporations to contribute to their community.”

Cosby was not all laughs as he turned serious at the end. He recalled a story of his son who was cruelly told by a fellow student that he got an A because of “affirmative action.” He challenged the attending students to study hard and make their education years worthy. I am sure they listened.

By Aviva Kempner

New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools

Monday, November 11th, 2013

October brought three great new interviews to The Rosenwald Schools. Read on to get a preview of three D.C.-area residents who will appear in our film: a rabbi, a poet and a curator.

Rabbi David Saperstein

David Saperstein is a lawyer and rabbi, active for decades in the Union for Reform Judaism and on the board of trustees for the NAACP. In his interview, he described the way Julius Rosenwald’s philanthropy adheres to the rich tradition of social justice in Reform Judaism:

Jewish leaders and Rabbis have always spoken out in universal terms, in terms of our obligation to be God’s partners in shaping a better world. So it’s not surprising that Rosenwald was able to deal both internally with Jewish causes of social justice – helping the Jews from Eastern Europe, as one example – but also get involved in universal concerns, working with Jane Addams in Hull House, the NAACP and eventually building this extraordinary set of schools.


Aviva Kempner and David Saperstein
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, October 28, 2013

The first system of universal education, at least for boys, was derived by the rabbis at the beginning of the Common Era, during the Talmudic Era of Rabbinic Judaism, 2,000 years ago. Every Jewish boy, rich and poor alike, not only was entitled to be educated, but it was the obligation of the society to ensure that it would happen. The Talmud says “be sure to educate the children of the poor, for out of them will come our great rabbis.” This was a belief that has been part of the Jewish community for 2,000 years.


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

When the abysmal lack of education for African Americans was brought to Rosenwald’s attention, the recognition that there couldn’t be equality without education transformed his life. And he did one of the most extraordinary acts of social justice in the history of humankind, single-handedly building this network of schools that transformed the history of America, and certainly of African Americans. One of the most extraordinary undertakings in all of human history on social justice [was] building this remarkable network of schools. It transformed the destiny of the African American community, and therefore of America.

E. Ethelbert Miller

E. Ethelbert Miller is a poet and activist living in Washington D.C. He is inspired by Hughes’s poetry and by his commitment to bringing it to new audiences.


Aviva Kempner with E. Ethelbert Miller
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, October 28, 2013

Hughes got two Rosenwald fellowships, in 1931 and in 1941. When he applied to the Rosenwald Fund for a second time, Miller explained, it was at a low point in his career. Having run out of money, he had been forced to sell the rights to his previous books to his publisher, Knopf, for just $400. The Rosenwald money was very timely for Hughes, as Miller pointed out:

Langston saved everything, down to receipts and stuff like that, so we can see he never had a lot of money. I think the worst thing to be is a writer and you have to lose the rights to your work. To me, it’s the equivalent of being like a great jazz musician and you have to pawn your horn. That’s the real part where you have to say, “Okay, how committed am I to this?”


Langston Hughes, 1936 (between his two Rosenwald grants)
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Carl Van Vechten Collection

In 1941, his major work had not even been done yet, [such as] his Montage of a Dream Deferred. A lot of his Simple stories had not been written. But you can see he was at that point where many of us maybe would have given up or lost the rights to our work, our stories. But you see why, when an award does come, it comes at a particular time, like that old TV show The Millionaire, where somebody knocks on your door and gives you this money. And not only are they giving you money, they’re giving you hope and they’re giving you the ability to continue to pursue your dreams.

Philip Brookman

Philip Brookman is the chief curator at Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery. An expert on photography, Brookman knew Gordon Parks personally. On a Rosenwald fellowship in 1942, Parks moved from Chicago to Washington D.C. to shoot photos for the Farm Security Administration, quickly producing what would become perhaps his most iconic photograph, American Gothic.


Washington, D.C. Government charwoman (also known as “American Gothic”)
Photo credit: Gordon Parks, Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection

The story of Parks’ Rosenwald fellowship will be prominent in the film, but Brookman gave us a wide variety of other interesting information on Parks’ life that will be included in the DVD of the film. Brookman discussed the way Parks approached his subjects, a method that began with his very first series of photographs of Ella Watson.

Gordon got to know a lot of the people that he photographed very well. I think that’s one of the things that distinguishes his photography. He really had to know and understand the people he photographed.


Aviva Kempner with Philip Brookman
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, October 28, 2013

One of the people he photographed is Richard Wright. He made a portrait a little bit later that I think focuses on Wright’s face and it puts him in a very modern looking environment. Not an environment that one would think when representing an author who had written so much about coming up from poverty in difficult conditions. Gordon wanted to represent the artist who was Richard Wright and I think he was very good at understanding how to actually convey a sense of who people were. His friendship with Wright had initially inspired him to become a photographer and to represent with images the way that Wright represented with words the kind of experiences they both had had growing up.


Richard Wright, 1943
Photo credit: Gordon Parks, Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection

I think that it was this kind of sensibility that came out of the Rosenwald era that gave artists a way of understanding what the power of their work could be and what it would mean for the world.

New Interviews for The Rosenwald Schools – Tuskegee Edition

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

On August 22nd and 23rd, Aviva Kempner, director of The Rosenwald Schools traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama to film nine interviews with experts on a variety of topics related to Julius Rosenwald, the Rosenwald Fund, Booker T. Washington and, last but not least, Tuskegee University itself.

We recently finished processing the 5+ hours of footage Aviva and the Alabama crew shot. Below you’ll find some interesting excerpts from the interviews along with photos from the shoot.

The Interviewees


Aviva Kempner and Shirley Baxter, (National Park Service Ranger)
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

The first two interviews of the day were shot in Booker T. Washington’s study in the historic home, known as “The Oaks,” that was built for him on Tuskegee’s campus. Shirley Baxter of the National Park Service introduced us to The Oaks. With its Victorian details and unusual features (a dry sauna, for example, which Washington requested after visiting Europe) the house was not typical of the Tuskegee area at the time it was built and, interestingly, it was the first building in the area with electricity. While some have criticized it for being opulent and out of place, designing and building it allowed students to study valuable architecture and construction techniques. It also served as a showpiece to the northern philanthropists Washington would entertain at Tuskegee (such as Julius Rosenwald, who stayed there several times). Both Baxter and Dana Chandler, Tuskegee University’s Archivist, described the parades, choir performances and dinners that greeted Rosenwald and his guests when they visited Tuskegee. According to Dana Chandler, while the dinners were designed to impress out of town guests, for someone like Rosenwald, who had spent his entire life in the North, they offered a real opportunity to experience another culture.

[The Oaks was] classy, but not over the top. The people that would come down with Julius Rosenwald would be treated to the local cuisine. They would eat turnip greens; they would eat grits: you know, the local foods. And from what I understand, many of them went back to their homes with a better appreciation of what we had here.

In addition to building the house, Tuskegee students staffed and even grew the food for these dinners. Washington, Baxter noted, was an avid gardener when he was not traveling, rising at 5:30 in the morning to feed his chickens and tend to his garden behind The Oaks.


Booker T. Washington feeding his chickens at The Oaks
Photo credit: Library of Congress, unknown date

Later that day, Aviva stopped by the Shiloh School to interview Edith Powell. The Shiloh School is a Rosenwald School nearby Tuskegee, and was the 2nd school built in a community that housed one of the original pilot schools of the Rosenwald School building program. Ms. Powell has been active in the school’s restoration for years, and Shiloh School stands among the finest examples of restored Rosenwald Schools in the country. Ms. Powell described the restoration process and also spoke about what the school meant for Notasulga, Alabama:

In the past, the school represented a way for children to get a quality education. Before this school was built in this area, [education for African Americans] was not of a level that could even compare to the whites. This school was state of the art and it represented the will of the community and the parents to have their children get a quality education at whatever cost. And they are the ones who raised the money.


The Shiloh Rosenwald School
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Along with The Oaks, there’s another National Park site in Tuskegee with a Rosenwald connection. In 1941, nine years after Rosenwald’s death, new Rosenwald Fund board member Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee in support of the nascent flight-training program and took a test flight with a black pilot (Charles Alfred Anderson) to prove to the rest of the country that black aviators were ready and able to serve in the military. Roosevelt’s visit to Tuskegee is a great story (that you can read more about in a previous blog post) and it resulted in the Rosenwald Fund giving a loan of $175,000 for the construction of an airfield and basic training facility called Moton Field that still stands today. Park Ranger Robert Stewart told us that around 1,000 pilots trained at Moton Field, almost half of which saw overseas action in World War II in places like Morocco, Tunisia and Sicily. We filmed Mr. Stewart in front of the very airplane (a J-3 Piper Cub) that Roosevelt and Anderson went up in back in 1941 (the plane is also visible below). Stewart talked about the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen during the war, but he also stressed the way the program impacted the lives of pilots after the war:

When I think about what this site personally means to me, I think about all the men who came here that learned how to fly that went overseas to fight against fascism and then came back home and fought against racism. Many of the Tuskegee Airmen, when they went overseas and they had a chance to fly and defend their country, had their eyes opened. Because of the things they were taught here, they went off and helped to start what we know as the Civil Rights movement.


Aviva Kempner, Robert Stewart and another NPS Park Ranger at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Anyone who visits or attends Tuskegee University cannot help but experience the work of one of its important, but less well known ‘founding fathers’. Aviva interviewed Dr. Richard Dozier, Dean Emeritus of the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science, about the Tuskegee architecture school’s namesake. In 1892, Booker T. Washington recruited Robert Taylor, the first black graduate from MIT in architecture, to establish an architecture school that could design and produce all the necessary buildings for Tuskegee’s future campus. It’s amazing that Taylor was able to train his students not only to design and build each campus building from scratch, but also to use whatever local materials that were available or could be created (such as bricks). Of course, one of Taylor’s most important legacies is his impact on the design of many of the Rosenwald Schools. The schools were frequently built according to a design Taylor invented that maximized natural light and usable space in small (by modern standards) floorplans. Dr. Dozier made an interesting point about this in his interview:

We find that Taylor was responsible for making a good many of those decisions that we call “green architecture” long before we arrived here today. The ventilation, the orientation of the building on the site and also the utilization of the space. In hot humid weather [Taylor and his students] were able to design buildings that you could open the windows, you could raise the ceilings, let the air flow through. The rooms were flexible. They didn’t have that much electricity so they had to provide light. [Tuskegee] had a very practical architecture – this is all green architecture and this is all avant-garde of architecture.


Robert R. Taylor, 1906
Photo credit: Library of Congress (not online)

Other interviewees included Gilbert Rochon, president of Tuskegee University and his wife Patricia Saul Rochon. Dr. Rochon spoke of the amazing legacy Booker T. Washington left at Tuskegee and talked about what a daunting task it must have been for Washington to build the campus from the ground up:

It was no mean feat for Booker T. Washington, with only $2,000 and at the time no campus, no faculty, no students, to get this place established. Notwithstanding that, it had to come to pass within a city that was very much segregated. In order for Tuskegee to survive it had to provide everything; it had to be a world unto itself. They produced their own food, they raised their own animals, they had their own mortuary, they established a bank; they established everything that was needed in order to be a self-sufficient town. There was a railroad that came through and I’m told that it was the only railroad where there was a black conductor.


Dr. Gilbert Rochon, president of Tuskegee University
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Patricia Rochon told us about the less well-known contributions of Washington’s three wives to life at Tuskegee. Rochon especially stressed the role of Margaret Murray Washington in the early days of Tuskegee, explaining that she had the same clarity of vision as Booker Washington and that she would act in an administrative role on his behalf during the many times when he was away speaking or fundraising. We also interviewed Dr. Kenneth Hamilton of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, author of an upcoming book that reorients the legacy of Booker T. Washington in the history of racial progress in the United States. Dr. Hamilton defended Booker T. Washington from the common latter-day criticisms of accommodationism by emphasizing his passionate pursuit of economic justice.


Aviva Kempner and Dr. Kenneth Hamilton
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Many thanks to these wonderful interviewees for giving their time and knowledge to our project.