Posts Tagged ‘ciesla foundation’

Another ‘parlor party’ for The Rosenwald Schools

Tuesday, 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.

New York’s DuArt Film & Video provides shelter to forgotten films

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

The New York Times reports that the top floor at DuArt, “the premiere hatchery of American independent cinema,” is home to hundreds of films stored by independent filmmakers at the lab over the years, many of which were forgotten and orphaned by their owners. As digital distribution continues to expand, original film prints can fall by the wayside, surprisingly even by the filmmakers who created them.

The article lists some intriguing titles that are currently housed at DuArt, including Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, a 1984 adaptation of Twelve Years a Slave directed by Rosenwald fellow Gordon Parks, and Simbiopschotaxiplasm, an experimental film by William Greaves, a great documentary filmmaker who passed away on Monday.

Until recently, The Ciesla Foundation was storing some old prints of our previous films at DuArt, where we processed all our films. DuArt is the premiere lab for independent filmmakers and is headed by the wise and kind Irwin Young, who is the best friend to independent filmmakers. Because of a heads up from Young and Steve Blakely we’re happy to say that we already retrieved our negative a few months ago.

Click here to read more at The New York Times.

Rosenwald School Spotlight: The San Domingo Rosenwald School

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

The San Domingo Rosenwald School
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2014

School is now in session.

Those were the first words by mistress of ceremonies Devoy Taylor at the dedication of the new San Domingo Community & Cultural Center at the historic Rosenwald School in San Domingo, Maryland. The Ciesla Foundation was on hand to film the ceremony, held on August 23rd, 2014, and to interview the school’s alumni and supporters.

Devoy Taylor ringing the principal’s bell
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2014

Chief among the school’s advocates is Newell Quinton, who spearheaded the ten year restoration process of his old school in the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland. The San Domingo Rosenwald School was opened in 1919 with funding from the Rosenwald Fund and the surrounding community. It replaced a smaller school on the same property in this hamlet where free African Americans have lived since before the Civil War. The new school was among the larger Rosenwald Schools to be built in the area, holding three classrooms and a special events space in its two floors. The restoration of the school is truly lovely, with art exhibits, artifacts, restored wooden floors and over 50 gleaming windows, the majority of which were missing and had to be replicated.

A large bank of windows, a trademark of Rosenwald Schools
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2014

Newell Quinton and his wife, Tanja R. Henson-Quinton, invited us to attend the dedication ceremony on Saturday, and we’re very grateful to have been a part of it. Before the ceremony, Mr. Quinton bantered with his sister, Alma Hackett (who also attended the school) about what it was like to attend a rural school before integration.

Newell Quinton and Alma Hackett
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2014

We also interviewed school alumni Sylvia Goslee, Charles Goslee, Rhuel Goslee and Avery Walker and even a teacher named Hattie Winder who had taught at the San Domingo Rosenwald School. It was striking how many of students had gone on to become educators themselves, including Alma Hackett and Rudolph Eugene Stanley, who shared with us a rich collection of very old photographs of the people in the community.

Rudolph Eugene Stanley
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2014

Stephanie Deutsch, author of You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South, also attended the ceremony. She talked about how she got interested in the Rosenwald Schools (by marrying David Deutsch, a descendant of Julius Rosenwald) and how the National Trust for Historic Preservation highlights places, like the Rosenwald Schools, that “matter.” Stephanie also presented the school’s alumni with a portrait of Julius Rosenwald much like the one that hung in historic Rosenwald Schools across the South.

Stephanie Deutsch
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2014

During the ceremony, Dr. Clara L. Small, a recently retired professor at Salisbury University, shared her memories of going to a different Rosenwald School in North Carolina. Dr. Small also announced some exciting news: the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture is beginning an initiative to document the history of all the Rosenwald Schools in the state. As most Rosenwald School buildings have been demolished or abandoned and alumni who remember the schools are aging, it is a crucial time to write this important piece of history.

Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2014

The team behind the restoration of the San Domingo Rosenwald School has made a huge contribution to the history of Rosenwald Schools in the state of Maryland. The restored building is a new center for the community, but it’s also a Rosenwald School museum and a monument to the history of San Domingo.

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.


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


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


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


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


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:

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