Julius Rosenwald was a major philanthropist of the early-twentieth century. The Rosenwald Fund emerged as a result of his entrepreneurial and financial success as the president of Sears, Roebuck, & Co. Of particular interest to contemporary scholars––and to this exhibit––is Rosenwald’s desire to give back to marginalized communities. Interested readers can discover more about Rosenwald’s life and philanthropy on this page. He is perhaps best known for his collaboration with educator and reformer Booker T. Washington to build over 5,000 schools and associated buildings between 1910 and 1930 for black students across 15 states of the American South. As the National Trust for Historic Preservation notes, “The effort has been called the most important initiative to advance black education in the early 20th century.”1

The Rosenwald fellowships were another remarkable yet lesser-known branch of Rosenwald’s philanthropy. In April 1928, Edwin Embree, then president of the Rosenwald Fund, proposed the idea of developing individuals’ talents alongside funding larger community projects related to racial equality, which he believed to be a necessary component to achieving prosperity for all. The fellowships to support outstanding individuals came to fruition one year later in May of 1929, when the Rosenwald Committee received suggestions made by poet and diplomat James Weldon Johnson and sociologist and race-relations expert Charles S. Johnson. Embree’s docket for the meeting states that: “James Weldon Johnson thinks something should be done to make it possible for these writers and musicians more properly to prepare themselves for their work and to enable them to devote some time to this work without too great difficulty and distraction.”2 Biographers also cite W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of the “talented tenth” as inspiration for the idea of these fellowships, which proposed the necessity of a small group of intellectual leaders to foster the success of the larger African American community. Between 1928 and 1948, the Rosenwald Fund offered fellowships to individuals “who show[ed] promise of leadership or whose scholarship or accomplishment in the Arts [was] outstanding.”3 The Rosenwald Committee ultimately funded not only artists but also scholars across all academic fields of study. From supporting James Baldwin's prose, to Evelyn Boyd Granville's study of mathematics, to Woody Guthrie's musical forays, Julius Rosenwald fostered an extremely talented generation of American intellectuals and performers.

Most importantly, the Rosenwald Fund played a major role in reshaping race relations of the early-twentieth century by bolstering the careers of black artists, authors, and scholars who had few avenues of funding available to them during an era plagued both by Jim Crow segregation and the Great Depression. The historical impact of the Rosenwald fellowships is affirmed by professor and activist Julian Bond’s assessment that the Rosenwald fellow cohort served as the predecessor generation to the civil rights generation (which Bond claims as his own), which itself was the predecessor generation that elected Barack Obama as president of the United States.4

This digital archival exhibit, “Women of Rosenwald: Curating Social Justice, 1928-1948,” celebrates important historical moments and accomplishments in the careers of black female artists who were recipients of the Rosenwald fellowship. “Artist” is an inclusive term in this exhibit, used to describe painters and sculptors as well as writers and dancers. This project deliberately focuses on black women as they are too often overlooked, a result of the double oppression of their gender and race, in historical retrospectives. This exhibit also focuses specifically on women whose achievements lie within the realm of the arts to demonstrate the ways in which their work within this medium had the powerful capacity to share stories that generated understanding, empathy, and connection. While not all of these women reached international celebrity or achieved long-term financial success after their fellowship period, the Fund provided each the vital opportunity to grow their talents, shape their respective fields, and touch their communities.

This exhibit frames the artistic labor of these female artists as acts of social justice. The work of these Rosenwald fellows often carried a political dimension that demanded recognition of the talent, innovation, and history of black individuals and communities around the world. As Kinshasha Holman Conwill notes, the cohort of Rosenwald fellows––including the women spotlighted in this digital exhibit––would indeed become the “talented tenth” to lead the African American community.5 Marian Anderson would become the first African American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera. Mildred Blount became the first African American member of the Motion Pictures Customer Union. Lenora G. Lafayette was the first African American singer to perform in an English opera house.

Many of these women also developed institutions or scholarships that directly supported future generations of black artists and intellectuals, thereby fusing their artistic production and the mission of social justice. For instance, after her fellowship, Augusta Savage headed the Harlem Community Art Center for young artists of color. Katherine Dunham opened the first interracial ballet studio. Elizabeth Catlett inspired students through her lithographs, broadcasting the inner power to persevere despite the odds.

Material from this exhibit derives almost exclusively from Fisk University’s John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library’s Special Collections. It is not insignificant that James Weldon Johnson and Charles S. Johnson, the artists and scholars who inspired the Rosenwald fellowships, both played major roles in the history of Fisk University and ultimately became fellowship recipients themselves. James Weldon Johnson was appointed as the first Adam K. Spence Professor of Creative Writing at Fisk in 1930, the year after he received a Rosenwald fellowship to write Black Manhattan. Notably, Charles S. Johnson was elected the first African American trustee of the Julius Rosenwald Fund in 1934 after having performed Rosenwald-funded research on race relations in Chicago in previous years. The Rosenwald Fund, Charles S. Johnson, and, ultimately, Fisk University, held a long-term beneficiary relationship, which resulted in direct donations to the university as well as support in the form of fellowships across Fisk's faculty. As chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Fisk, Charles S. Johnson continued to receive considerable financial support from the Rosenwald Fund and was offered further administrative support in his eventual inauguration as the first black president of Fisk University in 1948. Directly after Johnson’s inauguration and the concurrent closing of the Rosenwald Fund in 1948, Fisk University inherited a portion of the Rosenwald Fund’s memorabilia, which included a significant amount of material pertaining to the fellowships. This exhibit highlights some of the rich aspects of this collection as well as the shared emphasis on social justice between Fisk University and the Rosenwald Fund, which founds the basis of this historic institutional relationship.

The website is organized into a series of exhibits and collections that narrate these artists’ relationships with the Rosenwald Fund. While the collections provide a brief snapshot of these women’s fellowships, each exhibit offers a fuller showcase that includes a short biography of the fellow’s career, which is followed by sections addressing their fellowship application as well as their experiences during and after the fellowship. The amount of content in each section correlates to the material held in the John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library’s Special Collections. For instance, while Katherine Dunham’s file explodes with brochures and news articles on her dance company, Margaret Bonds’s material in the Rosenwald Collection is somewhat more minimal; every exhibit and collection has an important story to tell, and we have tried to tell it here.

Our team of contributors hopes that this material will be of interest to scholars and amateurs interested in African American history, art and literary history, Julius Rosenwald’s life and career, and the study of philanthropy. In addition to the individual exhibits and collections, visitors are encouraged to engage with the virtual map that visualizes the ways in which these women mobilized their careers as a result of these fellowships.


1. "National Treasures: Rosenwald Schools,” National Trust for Historic Preservation, accessed April 28, 2020, https://savingplaces.org/places/rosenwald-schools.

2. Peter Ascoli, Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 313. This excerpt from a letter written from Embree to Rosenwald is located in John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library Special Collections: 29 March 1929, Rosenwald Collection, Box 90, Folder 9. Fisk University.

3. Letter, Edwin R. Embree to Marian Anderson, 21 February 1930. Rosenwald Collection, Box 390, Folder 1, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library Special Collections, Fisk University.

4. Julian Bond, Rosenwald: The Remarkable Story of a Jewish Partnership with African American Communities, directed by Aviva Kempner (2015, Ciesla Foundation), documentary.

5. Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Rosenwald, dir. by Aviva Kempner.