When Jefton Gibson, 18, heard about Julius Rosenwald and the movie about his life, it really wasn’t such a big deal to him. That changed after Gibson and several other students at Booker T. Washington High School in Overtown participated in a meet-and-greet with Rosenwald director Aviva Kempner and other community leaders.
The event, including a panel discussion with Dr. Shirley Johnson, president of the NAACP’s Miami chapter, was a way to bridge the gap of diversity and bring awareness to the students about how Rosenwald was influenced by the writings of educator Washington. It also delivered the message of the importance of social responsibility and education to students including BTW senior Dominique Griffin, 17.
“[Rosenwald] really was an inspiration,” she said. “He really helped our people with funding for the public schools we have now. I didn’t know anything about him until I attended the event at our school.”
Gibson, a junior at the school, said he had “heard of [Rosenwald], but ... hadn’t taken the time to really get to know more about him.”
The panel discussion, which featured Johnson, Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, Pastor Willie Williams and Rabbi Marc Labowitz, piqued his interest in Rosenwald, he said.
“I did some research on my own and learned that he gave over $5 million to help fund black schools. That made me really appreciate him,” Gibson said. “I know some others have helped us, but not as much as he did.”
The students hope to soon see Rosenwald. The meet-and-greet event was held Oct. 2 to celebrate the documentary’s release.
Gibson was not alone when he said he didn’t know very much about Rosenwald until the panel discussion.
“I didn’t know the story,” BTW Principal William Aristide said. “But after sitting in on the panel discussion, I realized that it is so important that all our children understand our history and the positive cultural interaction that we, as people of color have had with various groups, in particularly, the Jewish community. To expose our children to this history opens their eyes to some of the many wonderful things that influence our culture.”
The film Rosenwald tells the story of a humble man who never finished high school, but rose to become the president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., and how he was influenced by the writings of Washington. The two men joined forces during the height of Jim Crow in the South and built more than 5,300 schools during the early part of the 20th century.
“He was inspired by the Jewish ideals of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) and a deep concern over racial inequality in America, director Kempler said. “Twelve years ago, I was inspired by Julian Bond to make the film after I attended a lecture he gave at Martha’s Vineyard on blacks and Jews,” she said.
She said about a third of the funding came from the African-American community and some came from state boards of education from throughout the South.
“It took 12 years for me to raise the money and make this film,” Kempner said. “Now I am working on making it into a DVD, so it can be used in schools.”
Rosenwald gave away more than $60 million in his lifetime and most of it was to fund schools, Kempner said.
“He used his wealth to become one of America’s most-effective philanthropists, but because of his modesty, his philanthropy and social activism are not well known today,” she said. “His Rosenwald Fund, which were grants, also funded the careers of such noted persons as Marian Anderson, the famous contralto, Ralph Bunche, writers Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, and historian John Franklin Hope. It was sort of a ‘Who’s Who’ in African-American culture.”
Kempner is an award-winning writer and producer who said she has a mission in life to investigate non-stereotypical images of Jews in history, and to celebrate the untold stories of Jewish heroes. Her works include Partisans of Vilna, a 1986 documentary on Jewish resistance against the Nazis, and the Emmy-nominated The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, the story of the Jewish slugger who fought anti-Semitism in the 1930s and ‘40s.