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Aviva Kempner's New Film Project: The Rosenwald Schools

Thursday, August 18, 2011   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Joe Libertelli
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Aviva Kempner, '76, is a DC Statehood activist and an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker.  Her newest project is focused on the life and work Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, the son of Jewish immigrants and one of America's wealthiest men in the early 20th century. Rosenwald's challenge grants helped create more than 5,500 schools for poor, rural African-American children in southern states - at a time when few received any public education. From 1915 to 1932, 660,000 rural southern African-American students benefited from Rosenwald's partnership with Booker T. Washington. 

According to the film website, "At the time of their construction and heyday, Rosenwald Schools were a household name in the Deep South. The list of prominent alumni and educators includes ancestors of Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Tony Award-winning playwright George Wolfe, and Julian Bond. Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson also went to a Rosenwald school. So respected was Julius Rosenwald in school communities, his portrait graced classroom walls alongside that of President Lincoln, and schoolchildren composed songs and poems to be performed in his honor at annual appreciation events. The project is not as well known today because Rosenwald directed that, after his death (he died in 1932), the schools not bear his name and that funding cease."

Rosenwald also "provided fellowships in a variety of fields to gifted African-Americans and white Southerners in order to give them one to three years to concentrate on their work and develop their abilities. These fellowships ranged from between $1,500 and $2,000, a considerable amount during the Great Depression. Between 1928-48, Fellowships totaling $1.65 million were given out to recipients including Marian Anderson, Romare Bearden, Ralph Bunche, W. E. B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Gordon Parks, James Baldwin, Jacob Lawrence and Claude MacKay."

Rosenwald, whose total charitable contributions would total nearly 2/3 billion in today's dollars, was also highly active in support of Chicago's large and very poor immigrant Jewish community.

For more on this amazing - and largely forgotten - story, see

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