Monday, September 14, 2015

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

As American society nears a demographic tipping point whereby whites are no longer the majority, a culture built upon a straight white patriarchy is facing increased challenges. In 2011, California's Governor Jerry Brown signed the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act into law, a "first in the nation" bill that requires public schools to:
Meanwhile, women in the arts have become increasingly outspoken about the blatant misogyny and gender bias they face in the entertainment industry.

As the #BlackLivesMatter movement has continued to gain momentum, it's been surprising to see how two prominent white men used their wealth to help strengthen the careers of African American artists. In her new book entitled Playboy Swings: How Hugh Hefner and Playboy Changed the Face of Music, Patty Farmer describes how Hugh Hefner (a life-long jazz enthusiast) helped to open doors for African Americans during the civil rights era.
Cover art for Patty Farmer's new book, Playboy Swings:
How Hugh Hefner and Playboy Changed the Face of Music

A new documentary by Aviva Kempner shines a bright and loving light on a relatively unknown Jewish philanthropist whose generosity helped to build the careers of numerous African American artists while giving an even greater gift to black children growing up in the South. The filmmaker first heard of Julius Rosenwald while attending a speech given by Julian Bond (whose father had worked for The Rosenwald Fund). "When he mentioned that the Sears president helped build 5,000 schools, I almost fell out of my chair," she recalls. “Rosenwald is the greatest American philanthropist you’ve never heard of!”

Julius Rosenwald was born in Springfield, Illinois and grew up in a house across from Abraham Lincoln’s home. Not only had his uncles clothed Lincoln, one of them escorted the dead President's casket back to Springfield following Lincoln's assassination. As Kempner explains:
"Making money was not his only goal in life. Rosenwald was inspired by the Jewish ideals of tzedakah and tikkun olam as espoused by his rabbi, Emil Hirsch. So he decided to implement grants that focused on racial inequality in America. He utilized matching grants as a vehicle for change 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. 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.

I was so impressed how the Rosenwald Fund helped artists and scholars early in their careers. 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. Du Bois, Woody Guthrie, John Hope Franklin, Katherine Dunham, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gordon Parks, James Baldwin, Jacob Lawrence, and Augusta Savage. Their accomplishments are American treasures."
Poster art for Rosenwald

According to the documentary, Rosenwald's motto was: “Give while you live.” Not only does Kempner's film, Rosenwald, describe "JR's" contributions to African American culture as a precursor to the MacArthur Foundation's "genius awards," it shows how the Chicago-based businessman challenged African Americans to donate cash and/or sweat equity to help strengthen their communities.

Having been Influenced by the work and writings of Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald joined forces with African American communities during the Jim Crow era to build more than 5,300 schools throughout the South. Because of his deep concern over the problems caused by America's racial inequality, Rosenwald put his wealth to work in an attempt to leave the world a better place after he was gone.

Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee architect Robert Robinson Taylor (Valerie Jarrett's great-grandfather) convinced Rosenwald that the proposed schools should be designed and built by African Americans. Rosenwald would provide the seed money necessary to finance one third of the schools’ construction. The local (white-controlled) school district would contribute another third of the costs. The local black community would raise the final third (often through sweat equity), which made them stakeholders in building schools for their children.

Although he never graduated from high school, Julius Rosenwald went on to to become the President of Sears. An extremely modest man who gave away nearly $62 million while he was alive, Rosenwald's social activism is not that well known outside of the African American community.
One of the most delightful segments in Rosenwald is the description of Eleanor Roosevelt's visit to Tuskegee at a time when black men were not considered qualified to fly airplanes.

In her director's statement, Kempner writes:
"For the past 36 years, my goal has been to make documentaries about under-known Jewish heroes that counter negative stereotypes. 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 its President by age 45. 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 Julian Rosenwald’s story be told now. It is a vital part of the great story of Jewish and African American partnership."
Filled with testimonials from African Americans who directly benefited from the Rosenwald schools, Kempner's film is much more than a collection of talking heads. It is a riveting, inspiring, and often thrilling rediscovery of a little-known cultural hero which should be required viewing in the curriculum of American History classes throughout the United States. Here's the trailer:

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