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Sources of light
Sources of light
Sometimes you have to travel a long way to find the story that's right in your own backyard.
And sometimes the things you think you know about that backyard — and about the country that surrounds it — aren't even close to being the whole story.
Until she began working on the documentary "Children Go Where I Send You," Caroline Stephenson had only a general notion of the link between Chicago and rural North Carolina, between a Chicago millionaire named Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) and thousands of African-Americans across the Deep South.
Between the art of filmmaking and the resonance of history.
Between two kinds of illumination: The kind of light required in film production and the kind of light that comes into a child's eyes when she or he has just learned a new word or figured out how to solve a math equation.
For Stephenson, 41, the journey began when she was 10 years old, wedged reluctantly in the back seat with her two brothers on family car trips.
"We'd be driving along and my parents would point out a Rosenwald School," she recalled. "They'd say, 'That's a part of history.' They believed that buildings are as much a part of history as people are."
Stephenson grew up in Hertford County, tucked away in a small corner of northeastern North Carolina. Her father, Frank Stephenson, a professor at Chowan University, and author of many books about the region, tried to pass along his love of local history to his children.
Like a lot of young people in rural areas, however, Caroline Stephenson had her eye on the horizon. First chance she got, she moved away, initially to Boston to attend Boston University for two years, and then to Chicago, where she studied film production at Columbia College Chicago.
Degree in hand, she headed for Los Angeles. Her first job was working for director Roger Corman. Then it was on to films and television, including several years as assistant director on the series "House." She met and married Jochen Kunstler, a German-born film editor. They have two children, Marlon and Lucye.
Stephenson, though, never forgot about the Rosenwald Schools she had seen on those family trips. There were four left standing in Hertford County, of the original 10, but more than 5,000 had been built throughout the South, thanks to the vision and generosity of a Chicago magnate named Rosenwald. Between 1912 and 1937, guided by legendary educator Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald financed the construction of the schools. In the days of segregation, the no-frills, wooden structures gave African-American children their only chance to learn.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the first Rosenwald School. Though fewer than 1,000 still stand, the milestone has generated dozens of news stories and inspired several documentaries that explore the schools and their impact on American history. The National Rosenwald Schools Conference, organized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, will be June 14-16 in Tuskegee, Ala.
Among the films to be screened at the conference will be Stephenson's story of Mill Neck, a Rosenwald School in Hertford County. Built in 1927, it was severely damaged in 2011 by Hurricane Irene, forcing residents to choose between expensive repairs or demolition.
For Stephenson, the making of "Children Go Where I Send You" marks a personal milestone. After more than a decade in Hollywood, she and her family moved back to her hometown, settling into a farmhouse that has been in the Stephenson family for generations. She and Kunstler started a film production company they call Barn Films — in honor of its headquarters, a 75-year-old barn on the property that Stephenson's father and grandfather built by hand.
It is here that Stephenson and Kunstler have been doing the last bits of work on the 30-minute, largely self-financed documentary. They are also mounting an event, the North Carolina Family Film Festival next weekend in nearby Winton, N.C., to enable their friends and neighbors in the somewhat isolated region to see provocative films. There they will show "Children Go Where I Send You" in advance of the conference in Tuskegee.
"It's a race to the finish line right now," she said of the post-production work, which includes adding a soundtrack of hymn-singing from a local Baptist church.
She left LA behind, but Chicago is still very much in her life. This spring, Stephenson commuted each week to teach courses in line production and assistant direction at Columbia. She will do the same in the fall.
Keeping that connection is vital, she believes, because the story of the Rosenwald Schools is very much a Chicago story as well. The schools first began to rise not in the sun-warmed soil of the South, but in the busy, earnest, mind of a vastly successful businessman who lived on the South Side of Chicago.
Who was Julius Rosenwald?
"There are modern historians who fault Rosenwald for building segregated schools," said Peter M. Ascoli. "But the fact is that, in the 1920s, you could not have built integrated schools in the South."
And so Rosenwald, a pragmatic and problem-solving CEO, used the same strategy he had used to build Sears, Roebuck and Co. into a retail behemoth in the early 20th century: He did what he could with the materials at hand — and dreamed of a day when circumstances might be otherwise.
"In his heart of hearts," Ascoli added, "he was, I think, working toward integration."
Ascoli, a Chicago resident who teaches at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, is the author of "Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced Black Education in the American South" (2006). He is Rosenwald's grandson.
As the biography recounts, Rosenwald was unfailingly generous to Chicago, financing the Museum of Science and Industry, supporting Hull House and contributing to the University of Chicago to the extent that a campus building was named after him.
But why did a wealthy businessman from Chicago with no previous record of concern for civil rights suddenly become interested in the plight of African-American children in the rural South?
Rosenwald was inspired, Ascoli said, by two things: a book and a rabbi.
The book was Booker T. Washington's "Up From Slavery" (1901), an autobiography that tells of the author's rise from servitude to international renown as the founder of the Tuskegee Institute.
And the rabbi was Emil G. Hirsch of the Chicago Sinai Congregation, who believed passionately in social justice. Hirsch's oratory "touched on the special duties that capitalists and men of wealth owed to society," Ascoli wrote.
His grandfather listened and nodded — and reached for his checkbook. Rosenwald, you could say, practiced what Hirsch preached.
Ascoli never met Rosenwald, who had been dead for a decade when Ascoli was born. Ascoli's mother, Rosenwald's youngest daughter, rarely talked about her father, he said. For Ascoli, then, researching and writing the biography gave him a chance to get to know his grandfather in the only way that was left to him.
Ascoli has appeared in several films about the Rosenwald Schools, including a documentary-in-progress by veteran filmmaker Aviva Kempner titled "The Rosenwald Schools," portions of which will be screened at next month's conference in Tuskegee.
"His views evolved," Ascoli said of his grandfather.
"He started out with the prejudices of his day, but came to believe that blacks should be treated as equal."
Teaching the 'whole person'
The narrator of "Children Go Where I Send You" is Dudley E. Flood, an 81-year-old African-American educator who attended a Rosenwald School and went on to earn a doctoral degree.
The Rosenwald Schools, Flood said in an interview for the film, made a "tremendous" difference in the lives of black students, mainly through "self-image," he explained.
"Here we got into a building — hot and cold running water, steam heat through a radiator. … More than anything else, it was an assurance that someone thought school was worth your going to.
"They taught the whole person. All the students were viewed as being capable."
Flood's story forms the emotional core of Stephenson's film, which also includes archival footage of the schools and the young people who attended them. Present-day students at Hertford County High School have been assisting her on the film, she noted.
Stephenson said she enjoys being back home in North Carolina, living just minutes from her parents, across the road from her father's cousin, next door to her aunt.
She likes having her days set to the rhythm of train whistles. And the hooting of owls is superior, she said, to the screaming of sirens that constitutes the perpetual soundtrack of life in LA.
But she makes documentaries, not fantasies, which means Stephenson also is candid about the negative aspects of life for two filmmakers in a small town. "My husband and I have to create our own opportunities here or travel elsewhere to be able to practice what we have been trained for."
So she comes to Chicago regularly to teach at Columbia. Then it's back to North Carolina, "where we have an ancient mulberry tree right outside the house," Stephenson said. "Up until last fall, we did not have a clothes dryer. I hung everything out on the clothesline. I didn't mind that — it's very peaceful work. And purposeful.
"Sometimes it's so quiet," she added, "that the absence of noise is itself loud."
And in that silence, you just might be able to hear — faintly, rhythmically, rising up from a pain-drenched past — the sound of footsteps traversing a hopeful path to the front door of a schoolhouse.
For information on the North Carolina Family Film Festival, visit ncfamilyfilmfestival.weebly.com.
To read more about "Children Go Where I Send You," go to rosenwaldproject.weebly.com.