Twelve years ago, filmmaker Aviva Kempner went to a conference on black-Jewish relations at the Hebrew Center on Martha’s Vineyard expecti...
Instead, she said, civil rights leader Julian Bond “started talking about Rosenwald, the schools he built and the fund, and I thought this was a film I have to make.”
Her documentary, “Rosenwald,” is the story of Julius Rosenwald, who never finished high school but rose to become the president of Sears. Influenced by the writings of educator Booker T. Washington, this Jewish philanthropist joined forces with African-American communities in the Jim Crow South to build over 5,300 black schools during the early part of the 20th century.
Rosenwald put up seed money to build these schools using standardized designs, as long as the local community took an active role, whether through fundraising or participating in the building process. With desegregation in the 1960s, most of the buildings fell into disuse.
The film will be screened in New Orleans this month, at the Zeitgeist Theater from Oct. 9 to 15 at 7:15 p.m. each night. The Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans will have a program at the Oct. 10 screening, featuring Rosenwald’s great-grandson, Bill Hess.
“Rosenwald” also opens in Birmingham at The Edge 12 at Crestwood Festival Center on Oct. 23 for a one-week run. On Oct. 30, the film opens at the Malco Ridgeway 4 in Memphis and the Green Hills 16 in Nashville, with other Southern cities scheduled for November.
The film is the third in Kempner’s trilogy of documentaries about lesser-known Jewish heroes. The previous two were “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” and “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” about Gertrude Berg.
Growing up in Detroit, she knew about Greenberg’s experiences as a baseball player fighting anti-Semitism, and about television pioneer Berg, but she hadn’t heard of Rosenwald.
The subjects of her three films are “Jewish heroes fighting the isms,” including anti-Semitism, sexism, racism and McCarthyism.
Kempner’s attraction to the stories of Jewish heroes comes from her family background. Her mother survived the Holocaust by passing as a Catholic at a labor camp, while her mother’s parents were murdered at Auschwitz. Her father was a U.S. soldier and her parents met in Berlin. She is regarded as the first American-Jewish child born in Berlin after the war.
As a teen she “fantasized” about fighting the Nazis, and became a filmmaker to tell about those who did. Her film, “Partisans of Vilna” was released in 1986.
She said Greenberg and Rosenwald “displayed great courage in performing as positive Jews in spite of the negative atmosphere swirling around them. Most of all, they were heroes to all Americans.”
Rosenwald was a pioneer of the matching challenge grant, and the idea to “give while you live.”
Among Jewish audiences, a common reaction to the film is wondering why this story is not widely known. Among African-American audiences, many had relatives who had been in those schools but often did not know about who Rosenwald was.
The first part of the film talks about Rosenwald’s family and their Jewish immigrant experience. Rosenwald was born in Springfield, Ill., in 1862, eight years after his parents immigrated from Germany, and he was heavily influenced by the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, whose home was across the street.
While there is no footage of Rosenwald from the early days, Kempner borrowed heavily from movies and television shows that depicted typical life from that period, licensing clips in everything from “Young Mr. Lincoln” to “The Frisco Kid” to illustrate the story. The film also includes dozens of interviews.
In 1884, Rosenwald and his brother started a clothing business in Chicago and in 1895 bought half of Sears, Roebuck & Co. Through the innovation of a catalog, the company grew exponentially and in 1906 it became one of the first companies to be traded publicly.
Soon thereafter, Rosenwald gave $25,000 toward building a YMCA that would serve blacks in Chicago. Soon he was giving $25,000 to any community that did the same, contingent on $75,000 being raised locally. About 30 such YMCAs were built based on those challenge grants.
Rosenwald was heavily influenced toward philanthropy by his rabbi, Emile Hirsch. At the invitation of Washington, they traveled to Tuskegee Institute in 1911 before Rosenwald accepted an appointment to its board.
For his 50th birthday, Rosenwald gave numerous gifts to favorite causes, including $25,000 to Tuskegee Institute.
In September 1912, Washington had $2800 remaining from Rosenwald’s gift, so he asked Rosenwald’s permission to use that money as a pilot project in school building for rural blacks.
A grant of $300 each went to help build six schools in central Alabama — Notasulga and Brownsville in Macon County, Loachapoka and Chewacla in Lee County, and Big Zion and Madison Park in Montgomery County.
Every Rosenwald school was built with matching funds from the local community, and black communities rallied to raise the funds needed to become part of the project. In many cases, the white community also chipped in.
In 1914, Rosenwald gave an additional $30,000 for another 100 rural Alabama schools, followed by funds for 200 more schools in 1916, opening the project to other states.
Rosenwald organized the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1917 to administer the program. He was of the opinion that a foundation should have set goals and a timetable for disbursing all of its assets and go out of business, since one never knows what the long-term future needs in society would be.
The second part of the film details Rosenwald’s relationship with Washington and construction of the schools, while the third part is about the Rosenwald Fund Fellowship program.
Rosenwald awarded fellowship grants to a who’s who of African-American intellectuals and artists, including Marian Anderson, James Baldwin, the father and uncle of civil rights leader Julian Bond, Ralph Bunche, W. E. B. DuBois, Katherine Dunham, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence and Augusta Savage along with Woody Guthrie.
By telling this story, Kempner hopes more foundations will be inspired “to bank on more artists, writers and intellectuals in today’s world.”
The list of prominent alumni and educators who attended the Rosenwald Schools include the ancestors of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Tony Award winning playwright George Wolfe, poet Maya Angelou, U.S. Representative John Lewis, Anita Hill and Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Robinson.
Rosenwald died in 1932, and the final school was built in 1933. The fund continued until 1948, keeping with Rosenwald’s desire that the fund should deplete its assets and close within 25 years after his death.
There were 405 Rosenwald Schools in Alabama, 639 in Mississippi, 442 in Louisiana and 127 in Florida. It is estimated that today no more than 15 percent of them are still standing, many in dilapidated condition. A handful have been restored and are being used for other purposes, such as community centers.
Kempner said the current effort to identify the old buildings and put them to new uses is “the real powerful story.”
Rosenwald Schools were named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2002.
On June 2, the film was screened in Baton Rouge two months before its official premiere in New York, courtesy of the River Road African History Museum in Donaldsonville.
The first Rosenwald school in Louisiana was constructed in 1916. By 1932, and one in four rural black schools in the state was a Rosenwald.
Museum Director Kathe Hambrick-Jackson learned years ago that the Central Agricultural Schoolhouse, also called the Romeville School, was slated to be torn down by the St. James Parish school board. Because it was “the cornerstone for educating African American children in St. James Parish” from the 1930s to the 1960s, she got the board to donate it to the museum in 1996.
Only after moving the building to Donaldsonville did she realize that it was a Rosenwald School, one of the few remaining in Louisiana. In 2013, the museum was able to start renovations on it and held a dedication with the great-granddaughter of Booker T. Washington as guest speaker.
Currently, only two other remaining Rosenwalds have been identified in Louisiana, including one in Plaisance, in St. Landry Parish.
In the middle of the school building program, Rosenwald’s daughter, Edith, married Edgar Stern of New Orleans in 1921. The Sterns became major philanthropists in the New Orleans area, and their home was the landmark Longue Vue House and Gardens.
In Alabama, several Rosenwald schools have been renovated. The Shiloh-Rosenwald School in Macon County has been restored, and the New Hope Rosenwald School in Fredonia is still standing. In 2011, a marker was unveiled at the site of the first Rosenwald school, in Loachapoka. That school no longer stands and was on the site of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church.
Oak Grove School near Gallion has been restored, and nearby Emory School, also known as Tunstall School, still stands between Gallion and Greensboro.
The school in Pickensville is now the Rosenwald Community Center, and the University of West Alabama partnered with it in 2013 to help with restoration efforts that had been set back by the 2011 tornado outbreak.
No more than 15 Rosenwald structures are known to still exist in Mississippi. The Bynum School in Panola County is the only surviving one-classroom Rosenwald school in the state. Other buildings include Brusky Creek School in Copiah County, Sherman Line School in Amite County and the Prentiss Institute in Jefferson Davis County.
The Bay Springs school is the only two-classroom plan school remaining in the state. There is also the deteriorated Rose Hill School in Sharkey County, and the Walthall County Training School near Tylertown.
In Drew, the Drew Colored School burned in 1928 and was replaced by a brick structure called “Little Red,” with a Rosenwald grant assisting in the reconstruction. Renovations began in 2001 to turn it into a community center.
In Pass Christian, the Randolph School was heavily damaged in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. In the midst of the devastation that littered the town, it was decided that the building would be a priority for renovation and rebuilding in the post-Katrina recovery, and reopened as a community center in 2013.
When she embarked on the film, Kempner said “I didn’t know it would take 12 years,” but she feels “honored” to have told the story.
A DVD will be released soon, including two to three hours of additional footage and a study guide package for educational use.
She said not everyone can give away $62 million as Rosenwald did, “but there is a Julius Rosenwald in all of us.”