By Monika Wysocki
In celebration of Black History Month, the National Archives in Washington, DC hosted a preview of Aviva Kempner’s newest film, The Rosenwald Schools, which chronicles the story of Chicago businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. Inspired by the social justice-oriented teachings of his rabbi, Emil Hirsch, and Booker T. Washington’s book, Up From Slavery, Rosenwald helped finance more than 5,000 schools for black children and awarded scholarships to up-and-coming luminaries such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison.
Speaking to a packed room last week, Kempner shared the stage with Stephanie Deutsch, author of You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South. Moment caught up with Kempner after the event to find out more about this fascinating bit of history.
MM: What is the message of The Rosenwald Schools, and how is it different from your previous works?
AK: I make films about under-known Jewish heroes. In my previous films, all the characters are battling a particular kind of “ism”—in Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg it was sexism, in Partisans of Vilna it was fascism, and in The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg it was anti-Semitism. In this again, we have an under-known Jewish hero, Julius Rosenwald, and an “ism”—racism. And he takes his mission very seriously in terms of providing funding for education and housing for black Americans. He was so inspired by Booker T. Washington’s book and realized that in the south there was such an incredible need for education.
MM: What initially drew you to this story?
AK: It’s an essential part of American history, a part of Jewish-American history. Julius Rosenwald was a man who gave away 62 million dollars in his lifetime, which today if you do the math would probably be more like a billion dollars. And he believed that his money should serve the public good; he started small in the Jewish community and then eventually really changed the world. He made a difference for 600,000 black children in the South, and he made a difference in Chicago. And it wasn’t for his greater glory—it was to make a difference in our society, which is very admirable, and it was decades and decades before the civil rights movement.
MM: What kind of response to the preview have you gotten from the Jewish and African American communities?
AK: On the one hand, the subject of the film is very esoteric and not well known outside of people who know Chicago history or are big philanthropists. But even though it’s not as well known, it’s something that’s very compelling to all different types of viewers. Today’s response, with people becoming very enthusiastic about sharing their own stories, is very typical. I always have people saying “My relative received a Rosenwald fellowship but I didn’t know much about it before this…” or “This is fascinating, I want to know more.” But, I had more tears at the preview at the Jewish Film Festival.
MM: What are some of the common misconceptions or little-known facts about the relationship between Jews and African Americans in the United States?
AK: The most important unknown fact is that there was this incredible working relationship between Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington that resulted in over 5,000 schools for black children, decades before the civil rights movement. Today, they’re actually rebuilding these schools to make community centers and other things. The irony with Julius Rosenwald was that he never went to college himself but was a huge advocate of education. But there’s a commonality there in terms of valuing education.
MM: What kind of impact do you hope The Rosenwald Schools will have?
AK: Julius Rosenwald is one of these unsung heroes that can be a role model for us all. I hope audiences will walk away with a desire to learn more, and be inspired to get involved in philanthropy in their own lives. This is an incredible story of one man, one fund, one community working together that shows that matching grants really make a difference. The better educated you are, the more compassion you have, the more you tend to embrace your fellow human beings.
For more on this topic, check out our previously published exclusive photo essay on Jews and African Americans. https://www.momentmag.com/Exclusive/2009/02/Jews-Blacks-1.html