Rare in Any Color

Rosenwald Fellows and the Untold Stories of African American Creatives

The Rosenwald Fund, established in 1917 by businessman Julius Rosenwald and his family for “the well-being of mankind,” is remembered for establishing schools for African Americans throughout the US South during the Jim Crow era. Given the outpouring of scholarly interest in Rosenwald Schools lately, it may come as a surprise that there is no single book focused on the fund’s other major philanthropy, grants to individuals (the Rosenwald Fellows, 1928-1948). Rosenwald schools are only half of the story, and the book I am writing tells the other half, revealing the workings of the Foundation and some of those who were supported by it. Civil rights leader Julian Bond, whose father benefited from a Rosenwald Grant, described the list of Fellows as a “Who’s Who of black America in the 1930s and 1940s,” and documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner has said that the grants were “like the MacArthur genius grants before there were MacArthur genius awards.”[1]

My book will recover a generation of African American writers, activists, and artists during a pivotal era at mid-twentieth century. It examines their part in the long civil rights movement, and the place of the Rosenwald Fund in that history. In addition to considering celebrated Fellows, the book emphasizes applicants who faded into obscurity, but who are no less worthy. It documents the toll of systemic racism on the most talented and best-resourced members of the African American creative class of the time while showing the lasting mark they made on American culture.

Instead of offering yet another project on the Harlem Renaissance, the book pursues an utterly different exploration of the creative world and networks of African Americans, upending the notion that a black creative class in the South was rendered impossible by Jim Crow. Instead of focusing only on the famous, it curates a deeply engaging cultural historiography of African American triumphs and tribulations during the long freedom struggle of the twentieth century modern Civil Rights era. It offers a template for a future study of, say, today’s Mellon Mays Fellow or Ford Fellows by investigating the intended and unintended consequences of philanthropy and the power of individual vision. 

In addressing an unsettled and fragmented area in the cultural historiography, the book creates a critical bridge between two periods. It offers an accessible critique of white benefaction and racial “uplift” of twentieth century African American intellectuals and artists, placing the players within the context of mid-twentieth century black aesthetics and in a productive nexus between Black Modernism and the Black Arts Movement that was ground-preparing for the Long Civil Rights Movement. Thus, it shows how Rosenwald Fellows were charting their own course in dialogue with the so-called “talented tenth” comprising early twentieth-century black intelligentsia. It looks at the decidedly mixed results and influences of benefactors’ reach as well as the resistance of creatives. In doing so, it speaks to the larger public debates concerning the legacies of slavery and the regional tensions that continue to animate American politics.

[1] Maurianne Adams, Strangers & Neighbors: Relations Between Blacks & Jews in the United States. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000 (5); quoted in David Ranii, “Film celebrates philanthropist behind Rosenwald schools,” Raleigh News and Observer, 28 Feb 2016

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