November 4, 2015

Aviva Kempner on Her New Film, "Rosenwald"

  • By: David Weible

For 36 years, documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner has shed light on the lesser-known stories of Jewish-American heroes. Her newest film, Rosenwald, tells the story of Julius Rosenwald, who, together with Booker T. Washington, built more than 5,300 schools for African-American students across the Jim Crow South. The film shows across the country this fall and winter.

Below, Kempner answers questions about her experience making the film, and the importance of telling the story of Rosenwald Schools today.

Why did you decide to make this film?
I decided to make a film on Julius Rosenwald when I heard Julian Bond speak about his family’s connection to the businessman and philanthropist 12 years ago at the Hebrew Center on Martha's Vineyard. I was immediately intrigued by Rosenwald’s story of being an enlightened businessman who wanted to repair the world. The son of a German immigrant peddler, Rosenwald had humble beginnings and left high school to follow in his family’s business. Taking a business risk, he bought into Sears and Roebuck with a relative and rose to become the President by age 45.

What is one of the things that struck you as you discovered this story?
I was impressed that making money was not Rosenwald's only goal in life. He was inspired by the Jewish ideals of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) as espoused by his rabbi Emil Hirsch, so he decided to implement grants that focused on combating racial inequality in America.

He utilized matching grants as a vehicle for change. Rosenwald partnered with African-American communities in the South to build more than 5,300 schools during the early part of the 20th century, and established the Rosenwald Fund, which awarded grants to a who’s who of African-American intellectuals and artists of his day so that they could pursue their scholarship and art.

Tell us a little more about these schools.
At the time, most public rural black schools were run-down with few amenities (if there were schools at all). With the addition of Rosenwald Schools, the next generation of African-Americans would have a chance to move away from the often grinding poverty found in such areas, and not be solely dependent upon the land for sustenance. Imagine what a difference these schools made.

I understand Julius Rosenwald had a unique connection to Abraham Lincoln.
A portrait of Rosenwald would often hang on a schoolhouse wall alongside a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. This was especially poignant to Rosenwald since he was born in Springfield, Illinois and grew up in a house across from Lincoln’s home. His uncles had clothed Lincoln and one of them escorted Lincoln’s casket back to Springfield.

What most impressed you about the Rosenwald program?
I was so impressed how the Rosenwald Fund helped artists and scholars early in their careers. The Rosenwald Fund awarded grants to African-Americans and white Southerners in order to give them one to three years to concentrate on their work and develop their abilities. The fellowships ranged from $1,500 to $2,000―a considerable amount during the Great Depression. Among the grant recipients were Marian Anderson, the father and uncle of civil rights leader Julian Bond, Ralph Bunche, W. E. B. DuBois, Woody Guthrie, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gordon Parks, James Baldwin, Jacob Lawrence and Augusta Savage. Their accomplishments are American treasures.

Why is this story still so important today?
I greatly admire Rosenwald’s philanthropy. He gave away $62 million to various causes, which in today’s dollars is closer to $1 billion. I felt that this story was too important to go unnoticed. It is a great Jewish legacy that I am excited to make better known. At a time when financial hardships abound and civil rights issues unfortunately still exist, it is imperative that Julius Rosenwald’s story be told. It is a vital part of the great story of Jewish and African-American partnership.

For a full list of screenings, click here.

Rosenwald Film Poster

photo by: Ciesla Foundation

Rosenwald shows across the country this fall and winter.

Aviva Kempner

photo by: Bruce Guthrie

The filmmaker and director of Rosenwald, Aviva Kempner.

Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington

photo by: Secial Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Julius Rosenwald with Booker T. Washington.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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