Documentary Reveals the ‘Rosenwald’ Behind Rural Black Education

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A new documentary screened at the NAACP Convention in Philadelphia spotlights a Jewish philanthropist responsible for educating hundreds of thousands of African Americans in the rural South.

Twelve years ago, award-winning filmmaker Aviva Kempner had never heard of Julius T. Rosenwald. Now, she is releasing “Rosenwald,” a documentary about the Jewish humanitarian and philanthropist’s contributions to African American communities in the early 20th century.
 
In 2003, she went to a discussion given by former NAACP chairman Julian Bond and Rabbi David Saperstein at Martha’s Vineyard about the historical relationship between blacks and Jews, and Rosenwald’s name came up. After hearing the men talk about him, she immediately began fundraising and working on the documentary about his life and the ways he impacted African-American communities in the early 20th century, which is being released in Philadelphia on Aug. 21. 
 
“I said, this had to be my next film,” said Kempner, whose other titles include “Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg” and “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.” Her cinematic purview has long been stories about lesser-known Jews who made a difference in their lifetimes, and Rosenwald was no exception.
 
Kempner, Bond and Saperstein joined together in person to show an advanced screening of the film on July 14 in conjunction with the NAACP’s 106th annual meeting at the Pennsylvania Convention Center — the same day that President Barack Obama appeared at the annual gathering to discuss prison reforms and unjust percentages of minorities in prisons. 
 
A crowd of about 80 educators, NAACP leaders and activists from all across the country were in attendance to watch and, ultimately, to cheer the work onscreen as the credits rolled. 
 
Rosenwald was born in Springfield, Ill., in 1862 and went on to become president and chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Co. by the early 1900s. He helped build up the company and even took it public. His efforts netted him a fortune, which he then gave to help build more than 5,300 schools in the Jim Crow-era South. These schools became known as “Rosenwald schools.”
 
At the time of his death in 1932, he had given more than $62 million toward the betterment of African-American communities. In the process, he had become a key player in the fight for equality, decades before the Civil Rights Movement kicked into high gear. 
 
Featuring interviews from a wide array of voices, from Maya Angelou to Rosenwald’s grandchildren, the film aims to show “what a difference Rosenwald made in American culture,” Kempner said. 
 
Those who watched the film hope its message is one that will resonate beyond the conference halls and theater walls.
 
“It’s important that we see how different ethnic groups come together as one for the betterment of all,” said Kathryn Haysbert, the first vice president of NAACP Branch 1068 in San Mateo, Calif. 
 
By working together, she added, “we can heal the nation, end racism and get rid of discrimination.”
 
The significance of “Rosenwald” being released now — nearly 100 years after the construction of the schools, equality remains a flashpoint of discourse and conflict — was not lost on Kempner. 
 
“Twelve years later, I didn’t know it would be at a time where race relations or the reevaluation of equity would be so intense,” she said in a phone interview. 
 
Rosenwald’s story inspired her, she said, particularly his contribution to education through the schools he helped build and his friendship with African-American education pioneer Booker T. Washington. 
 
The schools came about after Rosenwald had done work with Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. For his 50th birthday in 1912, Rosenwald gave Tuskegee $25,000, a portion of which Washington suggested be put towards building schools in the rural South, an area where quality education for African Americans was hard to find. 
 
It began with building just six schoolhouses in rural Alabama in 1913. 
 
After seeing the initial success of the schools, Rosenwald, who didn’t finish high school himself, continued providing matching funds for the project. Ultimately, more than 660,000 children were able to receive an education because of these schools.
 
“Rosenwald schools were by the people, for the people,” said one interviewee in the film. 
 
A handful of people in the audience at the screening were past Rosenwald students. Some knew vaguely who Rosenwald was. Others had no idea until after the film ended.
 
Wendell J. Harris, Sr., stood up in the front of the room after the film and told of his educational experience. 
 
He attended a Rosenwald school in Sherrill, Ark., in the 1950s, from the time he was 5 years old until the 9th grade.  But he didn’t know the significance behind why it was called a Rosenwald school until a past classmate of his did a project on their school, which had been burned down in what Harris believed was an act of vandalism down just a few years ago. 
 
“I always remember being classified as a smart kid,” said Harris, director of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, after the presentation. He was interested in civics and the arts and proudly added that he was even the star of the school play in the fifth grade. But, he said, he would often get distracted by looking outside and dreaming of a bigger world.
 
Harris, “the guy who got lost along the way,” as he called himself with a laugh, said his Rosenwald experience allowed him the “courage and confidence” to continue pursuing his education later on in life. 
 
“His 5,000 schools resulted in people getting an education at a time when black people were being lynched for trying to get an education in this country,” he said. “[The film] brought home the significance of what Mr. Rosenwald did in his lifetime to help humanity. It inspired me to keep going in what I do.”
 
The dual messages of taking action in one’s own community and tikkun olam were big ones for Kempner, and for Rosenwald himself.
 
Between 1917 and 1932, Rosenwald and Washington joined together to build more than 27 YMCAs to serve African Americans — including the Christian Street YMCA in Philadelphia. Also in 1917, he created the Rosenwald Fund, which supported artists, authors and other creative souls in their pursuits until the fund was depleted in 1948. Famous recipients include sculptor Augusta Savage, artist Jacob Lawrence, poet Langston Hughes, folk legend Woody Guthrie and Philadelphia native and opera singer Marian Anderson. 
 
The film explores his relationships with other leaders, such as Rabbi Emil Hirsch of Chicago’s Sinai Congregation — where Rosenwald was a member — who inspired him to think critically about a person’s responsibility to repair society and his community. 
 
Kempner hopes the film will spur people to think about what they can do in their own communities, and then act on those thoughts. 
 
“We need a lot of repairing done — especially in America,” Kempner had said to the audience before the screening began, as many voiced their agreement.
 
She was “ecstatic” at the enthusiastic response from the audience, particularly those who decided to share their stories of their education from Rosenwald schools.
 
“It’s one thing to have a film and depict it, and another to have people live talking about it and saying, ‘I went to the school, and I’m grateful for Rosenwald,’” the filmmaker said. “All those people who stood up and said they went to a school meant so much to me.” 
 
Contact: [email protected]; (215-832-0740). 

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