Education

‘Rosenwald': A Documentary Examines Philanthropist’s Aid for Black Schools

By Mark Walsh — August 13, 2015 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A dozen years ago, Washington filmmaker Aviva Kempner was on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts to hear a talk about civil rights by the longtime activist Julian Bond.

The topic of Bonds’ talk at the Hebrew Center was the relationship between African Americans and Jews, and Kempner was expecting him to discuss the 1960s. Instead, Bond spoke about the work of a Jewish titan of U.S. business in the early 20th century—Julius Rosenwald—and his partnership with Booker T. Washington to improve the education of African Americans in the South.

Rosenwald, the son of an itinerant Jewish immigrant peddler, was the president of Sears, Roebuck & Co. Working with architecture students from Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, he helped fund some 5,300 small schools for blacks in 15 states in the South, from 1913 to 1932.

Kempner says she was inspired to make a documentary about Rosenwald. Such a film would fit her pattern of films highlighting underappreciated Jewish heroes, she says. Other films of hers include “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” about the1930’s and 40s baseball star; and “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” about Gertrude Berg, the writer and star of the radio and early TV show, “The Goldbergs.”

On Friday in New York, and on Aug. 28 around the country, Kempner’s film “Rosenwald” will be released.

The film’s working title had been “The Rosenwald Schools,” reflecting the core of the story about the school buildings for Southern blacks. But Kempner shortened the title to “Rosenwald” after showing it on the festival circuit over the last year or so.

“The last third of the film is about the Rosenwald Fund,” Kempner said in an interview. Rosenwald’s philanthropy funded a stunning variety of projects, including grants to the historian John Hope Franklin, the poet Langston Hughes, and to the training of the Tuskegee Airmen.

The first third of the film is about Rosenwald’s rise to become leader of Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck. It’s a fascinating story that Kempner tells with interesting graphics, shots of early Sears catalogues, and even TV and movie clips highlighting Jewish peddlers.

Rosenwald was strictly business as he helped build Sears into the Amazon.com of its heyday. (The CEO had the Sears catalogue printed in a slightly smaller format than that of rival Montgomery Ward & Co., so that homemakers would store the Sears book on top, making it more likely to be consulted first when it was time to order a product.)

As Rosenwald became one of Chicago’s wealthiest business leaders, he began to look for ways to help society, and he was influenced by Rabbi Emil Hirsch of Chicago Sinai Congregation. After reading Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Rosenwald met with the African-American leader in 1912 and began seeding the development of YMCA and YWCA facilities for blacks.

Rosenwald soon turned to helping fund the schools that would bear his name, and that story takes up the middle third of Kempner’s film.

Rosenwald typically provided only one-third of the money needed for each school, with a third coming from the state or local school district, and a third raised by the African-American community. The schools were considered public schools and were a marked improvement for blacks over existing “separate but equal” facilities in many communities, and were the only educational option for them in others.

More than 660,000 African-Americans in the South attended Rosenwald Schools,

After Rosenwald’s death in 1932, the schools no longer bore his name and their funding ceased. That combined with the slow but eventual successes of desegregation led many of the Rosenwald School buildings to fall into disrepair.

As Joetta Sack reported in an Education Week story in 2004, a movement began in the 1980s to preserve the remaining Rosenwald Schools.

“Rosenwald” has an impressive array of interview subjects, including descendants of Rosenwald and of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as the poet Maya Angelou, the actor Ossie Davis, the poet Rita Dove, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, and the journalist Cokie Roberts.

“I thought my school was grand. It was the Lafayette County Traning School, so there,” says Angelou, who died last year.

Kempner’s film opens with a gathering of alumni of a Rosenwald school in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, with one elderly graduate of the now-restored school looking at the portrait of Julius Rosenwald. As a student decades ago, Frank Brinkley would wonder why there was a portrait of an older Jewish white man hanging in the school, alongside one of Booker T. Washington.

“We would always ask who it was, and we were told it was the man who built the school,” Brinkley says in the film.

Another graduate, Lester Mae Hill, says: “I’m very proud that he did [build it]. But if he was here, I would ask him what was his real interest that made him do it for the African-American kids?”

Kempner’s film goes on and answers that question clearly and entertainingly.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Education Insights with Actionable Data to Create More Personalized Engagement
The world has changed during this time of pandemic learning, and there is a new challenge faced in education regarding how we effectively utilize the data now available to educators and leaders. In this session
Content provided by Microsoft
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Accelerate Learning with Project-Based Learning
Earlier this year, the George Lucas Educational Foundation released four new studies highlighting how project-based learning (PBL) helps accelerate student learning—across age groups, multiple disciplines, and different socio-economic statuses. With this year’s emphasis on unfinished
Content provided by SmartLab Learning
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. If we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education California Makes Ethnic Studies a High School Requirement
California is among the first in the nation to require students to take a course in ethnic studies to get a diploma starting in 2029-30.
4 min read
FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2020, file photo, Democratic Assembly members, from left, James Ramos, Chris Holden Jose Medina, and Rudy Salas, Jr., right, huddle during an Assembly session in Sacramento, Calif. Medina's bill to make ethnic studies a high school requirement was signed into law by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
Education California Requires Free Menstrual Products in Public Schools
The move comes as women’s rights advocates push nationwide for affordable access to pads, tampons, and other items.
1 min read
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Education Florida to Dock School District Salaries for Requiring Masks
Florida is set to dock salaries and withhold funding from local school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates.
2 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Education More Than 120,000 U.S. Kids Had Caregivers Die During Pandemic
The toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans, a new study suggests.
3 min read
FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 file photo, a funeral director arranges flowers on a casket before a service in Tampa, Fla. According to a study published Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, by the medical journal Pediatrics, the number of U.S. children orphaned during the COVID-19 pandemic may be larger than previously estimated, and the toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)