McClatchy's America

‘Rosenwald’ highlights philanthropy of unsung Civil Rights hero

Philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and some of the students from a Rosenwald school.
Philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and some of the students from a Rosenwald school. Courtesy of Fisk University, John Hope and Aureila E. Franklin Library, Special Collections

Journalist Bill Douglas knows the value of a good story, well told.

Douglas, a graduate of the University of South Carolina and a congressional correspondent for The McClatchy Company in Washington D.C. (The State Media Company is a McClatchy property), has joined with his North Augusta sister to cover the cost to bring the civil rights documentary “Rosenwald” to The Nickelodean theater in Columbia this Sunday. The movie tells of Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, whose contributions a century ago built schools in black communities across the South, including more than 500 in South Carolina.

“It’s a movie that needs to be seen all over the country, but especially in the South,” Douglas said. “There’s a generation who doesn’t know what it was like back in the day, and they don’t know what some folks did to make it better.”

Produced by filmmaker Aviva Kempner, “Rosenwald” describes how the successful chairman of Sears, Roebuck & Co. was inspired by his rabbi and the writings of educator Booker T. Washington. A Chicago native, Rosenwald was scarcely aware of the plight of blacks in the South until reading Washington’s 1901 book, “Up From Slavery.” Rosenwald, with guidance from Washington, initially provided money to build six schools for black children in Alabama. That effort grew to some 5,400 schools during a time when funding was woefully inadequate for black schools across the South. Rosenwald also built YMCAs and housing, and supported artists such as Marian Anderson, Jacob Lawrence and Gordon Parks. Rosenwald schools were attended by an impressive group of students who become notable Southern black leaders, including writer Maya Angelou, civil rights leader Julian Bond and U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

Kempner – known for documentaries highlighting stories of Jewish heroes – developed the idea for the film more than 12 years ago. After years of research and fundraising, she was able to complete the work.

“My M.O. was to make films about under-known Jewish heroes,” she said. “He just totally fit into my idea of someone who came along repairing the world and someone who gave for the sake of improving conditions and not for the sake of getting credit.”

The airing in Columbia on Sunday will be the first screening of the documentary in South Carolina (followed by screenings this month in Charleston and Beaufort). The Nick had wanted to show the film but was unable to afford the $1,000 distribution fee it carried. That’s where Douglas and his sister, Lorraine Stuckey, decided to act. Douglas had a personal interest in the film, as well. His daughter, Helene, worked as an intern for Kempner during the making of the documentary.

“I’m very excited that William and Lorraine are supporting this screening in Columbia.,” Kempner said. “It’s coming out at the right time – in today’s world when the issues of racial inequality and racial separations are still so much part of the political and economic landscape.”

In addition to working with Douglas and Stuckey to bring the film to The Nick, directors at the theater are teaming with Historic Columbia to conduct a post-screening panel discussion.

“The Nickelodeon is proud to be a center for dialogue and intersectional storytelling, which is why “Rosenwald” is a perfect film for us to screen,” said Seth Gadsden, managing director for The Nick. “The story of philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and his contributions ... in the segregated South of the early 1900s still holds lessons very relevant today.”

Douglas agrees – particularly in light of recent events in South Carolina, noting “all that the state has been through this past year.

“I thought the movie sort of paid homage to a time when there was a cooperation and collaboration among blacks and whites,” Douglas said. “It’s a film that also tells us sort of a forgotten story about the relationship during the Civil Rights Era between blacks and Jews.