Thursday, September 16th 2021   |

‘Rosenwald’ documentary to bow here soon


When the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans celebrated its centennial two years ago, it touted the remarkable influence of Julius Rosenwald as being responsible for the formation of the disparate local Jewish charities into one central governing body.

Rosenwald students

Julius Rosenwald with students from a Rosenwald school. (Courtesy Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia F. Franklin Special Collections)

Rosenwald not only helped pave the way for the local New Orleans Federation, but his commitment to the downtrodden African-American community, especially in the rural South, is the subject of a new documentary by filmmaker Aviva Kempner, some 12 years in the making.

“Rosenwald” premieres at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disceplenary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard,  next Friday, October 9, and runs daily through October 15. A special screening sponsored by Federation will be held on Saturday, October 10 from 7:00 – 9:15 p.m. The cost for the screenings is $5.00, but seating is limited to 120.

Kempner, who had previous documentaries issued on baseball great Hank Greenberg and TV pioneer Molly Goldberg, was impressed by this affluent titan of industry, the president of Sears and Roebuck, who gave away millions of dollars in the form of direct grants and who oversaw the erection of more than 5,000 schoolhouses for African-Americans across the nation.  Kempner describes Rosenwald, who died in 1932, as an “under-known” figure.

“I’m on this earth to make films about under-known Jewish heroes,” she claimed.

Aviva_KempnerRosenwald’s journey as a son of an immigrant into a millionaire industrialist and later into a munificent philanthropist are recounted in the 95-minute documentary.

Locally, Rosenwald is also known as the father of New Orleans community leader Edith Stern of blessed memory. Her grandson, Bill Hess, will speak immediately after the film screening on October 10. Kempner, however, will not be in New Orleans.

Kempner’s inspiration to make the film began on Martha’s Vineyard, when she heard the late civil rights leader Julian Bond speak about the influence of Jews in working to better the plight of black Americans.

“I thought I was coming to a talk about the Civil Rights era,” Kempner said. Instead, she heard for the first time how Rosenwald had provided funding for dozens of YMCAs across the country in addition to what started out as five schoolhouses and blossomed into more than 5,300 school structures under Rosenwald’s watch.

In addition to providing funding for schoolhouses, Rosenwald made a practice of giving out direct grants to worthy applicants. Author and playwright Langston Hughes and other notables like Dr. Charles Drew, a medical researcher who specialized in blood transfusions, and has been cited as helping establish blood banks prior to World War II, are also recognized as Rosenwald grant recipients. “Julian Bond’s father and uncle had both gotten Rosenwald grants,” Kempner said and was startled to learn.

Bond, who died around the time that the film was being finished this summer, is credited by Kempner as being much more than the impetus to the project. “He was a total inspiration and one of the main consultants,” she acknowledged. “He had everything to do with making the film.”

Locally, historic black college Dillard University was the recipient of funds from Rosenwald and the Stern family. A performance hall on campus is still named after him.


Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute, 1915 (Courtesy, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Stern is also credited late in the film as helping to provide a place for opera great Marian Andersen to perform when she was refused access to a concert hall maintained by the Daughters of the American Revolution over her racial makeup.

Rosenwald was a close confidant of Booker T. Washington and came to be a major benefactor of his Tuskegee Institute. Many of the schoolhouses built with materials Rosenwald had provided through his Sears and Roebuck catalog were designed by Tuskegee architects.

The late poet Maya Angelou and U.S Representative John Lewis  (D-GA.) both recount in the film the schooling they received in a Rosenwald schoolhouse.

Following the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka under which separate but equal school systems were declare unconstitutional, Rosenwald schoolhouses became obsolete and fell into disrepair. Most of them were destroyed.

One of the few existing schoolhouses in Louisiana was saved and is now part of the River Road African American Museum located in Donaldsonville, according to its founder and director, Kathe Hambrick Jackson.

“The National Trust a few years ago declared Rosenwald schools as among the 11 most endangered buildings n the United States,” Hambrick Jackson noted.

Kempner said that the hardest part of making a documentary is the fundraising, which requires applying for grants and asking for donations from interested parties. She does not pay herself for her time and investment.

The documentary filmmaker was born in Berlin and is a descendant of Holocaust survivors. She came to live in Detroit when she was three years old and now resides in Washington, D.C.

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