Documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner was inspired when she heard civil rights leader Julian Bond speak about the 5,000 schools for black youths that Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald helped establish across the South from 1912 to 1932.
“It is one of the great unknown stories of philanthropy,” Kempner said. “I’ve always been so horrified by the Jim Crow era. (Rosenwald’s story) made me really proud as a Jew.”
Kempner’s documentary “Rosenwald,” a 12-year labor of love, is being screened Sunday at 3 p.m. at the N.C. Museum of History in downtown Raleigh.
“Rosenwald schools” were built in states from Maryland to Texas, but more were established in North Carolina – 787, plus 26 workshops and teachers’ homes – than in any other state, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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“We’re showing this because historic Rosenwald schools are a very important part of our history,” said Cassandra Bennett, the museum’s adult education programs coordinator, who noted that more than 50 were built in the Triangle. The screening is supported by the Raleigh Historic Development Commission, which is working on nominating the Berry O’Kelly School – a Rosenwald school on Method Road in Raleigh – for the National Register of Historic Places.
Rosenwald made his fortune at Sears, Roebuck & Co., which he helped build into the Amazon of its day. He was a big believer in the Jewish notions of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world).
“He always thought that ... you should give while you live,” Kempner said in a phone interview. “He actually wound up giving away $62 million for charity” during his lifetime – an astonishing sum at the time.
Spurred on by Booker T. Washington’s book “Up From Slavery” and the rural school program that Washington conceived, Rosenwald wanted to help African-Americans help themselves through the power of education.
It was an era when schooling for black children in the South was woefully underfunded and often consigned to dilapidated buildings. Some counties wouldn’t even provide public school buildings.
“As Eugene Robinson ... says in the film, the thing was to keep African-Americans working in the fields and not getting an education,” Kempner said.
Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, graduated from a Rosenwald school. So did poet Maya Angelou, Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe and U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
By 1928, 16 years after the first Rosenwald schools were built, one of every five rural schools in the South was a Rosenwald school, according to the National Trust.
The Rosenwald school formula required buy-in from others. The black community had to provide cash and in-kind donations, which came in the form of “sweat equity” – that is, providing labor – as well as fundraisers such as fish fries. Meanwhile, the public schools were expected to take over ownership and maintenance of the buildings.
“You in North Carolina should be very proud” that the state ranked first in Rosenwald schools, Kempner said.
Rosenwald also handed out grants to African-American artists and intellectuals so they could continue their work. Recipients included James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gordon Parks and renowned historian John Hope Franklin, whose career ultimately led him to a professorship at Duke University.
“It was like the MacArthur genius grants before there were MacArthur genius awards,” Kempner said.
Kempner’s specialty is documentaries about “unknown Jewish heroes.” Her other films include “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” which spotlights the baseball hall of famer known as Hammerin’ Hank, and “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” about pioneering TV star Gertrude Berg.
“The great irony is Julius Rosenwald never graduated from high school,” said Kempner. “Sometimes you give back what you yourself don’t get.”
If you go
“Rosenwald” is being shown at 3 p.m. Sunday at the N.C. Museum of History at 5 E. Edenton St. in downtown Raleigh. Admission is free but donations are encouraged. The film will be followed by a discussion with Rosenwald school alumni.