A Historical Partnership
“Rosenwald” is a documentary about Julius Rosenwald, businessman and philanthropist who joined with communities of African Americans in the southern United States to build school during the early twentieth century. This is particularly interesting to me as the grand dame of the New Orleans Jewish community while I was growing up was Mrs. Edgar B. Stern nee Rosenwald. In the film we learn about this “historical partnership as well as the modern-day attempts to maintain or reconfigure the schools is a great dramatic story, yet too little known”.
Rosenwald was born in Springfield, Illinois and was the son of German-Jewish immigrants. He became one of the wealthiest men in America as well as a beloved humanitarian. As the son of a German Jewish clothier, he went into the family business as well, and married the daughter of a competitor. Then he and Richard Sears developed Sears, Roebuck and Co. and helped diversify the company by “positioning it to be known as the direct extension of the farmer’s eyes, ears and wallet– making purchasing decisions in the best interest of the farmer”. Rosenwald became Sears President from 1908–1924 and was its chairman 1924-1932.
What influenced Rosenwald was the social gospel Rabbi Emil Hirsch of the Chicago Sinai Congregation and Rosenwald used his great wealth and talent for leadership to try to fix what he viewed as wrong with the world. He was a leader in establishing social services to meet the needs of some 100,000 impoverished Jewish immigrants who settled in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century and then worked to unite the Jewish community by bringing the city’s splintered German and Eastern European Jewish communities together. Rosenwald’s politics were liberal and he was concerned about justice for African-Americans. His own exposure to poverty and immigrants in New York City also influenced his views. It is said that he gave away some $63 million to various causes, which in today’s dollars is more than ten times that amount.
After reading about African American thinkers , Rosenwald’s philanthropy took a different direction. Booker T. Washington approached Julius Rosenwald in 1912 to ask him to assist in funding a program in line with Washington’s belief of self-help for African-American southerners that emphasized economic advancement through vocational education. It was Rosenwald who was responsible for the creation of and establishment of twenty-five YMCA-YWCAs to serve African-Americans in cities across the U.S., including the Wabash Avenue YMCA in Chicago. Up until this time the existing Y’s served only whites. Rosenwald also established one of the nation’s first housing projects on Chicago’s South Side. His greatest accomplishment, however, was the establishment of challenge grants, seeded for the creation of more than 5,500 schools for poor, rural African-American children in southern states at a time when few received any public education. “From 1915 to 1932, 660,000 rural southern African-American students benefited from an initiative that truly represents The American Dream. The story of the partnership between Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington is perhaps the most compelling one of our time.
We can imagine what it meant for a community to have a Rosenwald School. At the time, most public schools for rural African-Americans, if there were any schools at all, were run-down buildings with few, if any, amenities. If the county didn’t provide a public building, the children learned in lodge halls, and churches. What is so important is that to have a school and educators in a community meant that the next generation would have a chance to move away from the poverty of such places, and not be solely dependent upon the land for sustenance. The model for these was The Tuskegee Institute, which trained African-Americans in skills related to the building and agricultural trades thereby teaching what would influence the development of the Rosenwald Schools. Washington became skilled in fundraising and negotiating between the white and African-American communities and he was able to lay the groundwork for the establishment of the Rosenwald schools. Rosenwald Schools became a household name in the Deep South. Personally, I do not remember any schools of that name in New Orleans but I do remember that several of the playgrounds in the sections of the city that were basically African American were named for Rosenwald. Whether they still exist I do not know.
Some of the prominent alumni and educators of Rosenwald schools include ancestors of Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, George Wolfe, and Julian Bond. Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist went to a Rosenwald school. Julius Rosenwald was so highly respected that it was commonplace to see his portrait on the walls of classrooms right next to portraits of Abraham Lincoln. Of course we can ask why we are not so aware of this today and the answer is quite simple— Rosenwald directed that, after his death (he died in 1932), the schools not bear his name and that funding cease.
Early on and at one of the first meetings of the Rosenwald Fund board, it was decided to give fellowships in a variety of fields to gifted African-Americans and white Southerners in order to give them one to three years to concentrate on their work and develop their abilities. The fellowships ranged from between $1,500 and $2,000 and when we consider that this was during the Depression we understand that this was a considerable amount of money. Between 1928-48, Fellowships totaling $1.65 million were given out to recipients including Marian Anderson, Romare Bearden, Ralph Bunche, W. E. B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Gordon Parks, James Baldwin, Jacob Lawrence and Claude MacKay.
Today, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is the leading entity in documenting the condition of the buildings and offering assistance to local communities restoring the old schools. There have been local efforts to locate and refurbish the facilities have led to alumni reunions, news coverage of former teachers, dedication ceremonies, conferences, and renewed scholarship and research of the initiative. It is wonderful that the story of Rosenwald continues and two Rosenwald granddaughters continue his tradition by donating funds to re-establish the Rosenwald schools. This is such an important story and now when there is a great deal of financial hardship, it is very important that Rosenwald’s story not only be told but be remembered by those who have moved it to the back of their minds.
This is a film by Aviva Kempner who admits that until twelve years ago, she had never heard of Julius T. Rosenwald. Now, she is releasing “Rosenwald”. In 2003, she went to a discussion given by former NAACP chairman Julian Bond and Rabbi David Saperstein at Martha’s Vineyard about the historical relationship between blacks and Jews. It was then that Rosenwald’s name came up. After hearing the men talk about him, she immediately began fundraising and working on the documentary about his life and the ways he impacted African-American communities in the early 20th century. The film is set to premiere in Philadelphia on August 21. It will then be part of many Jewish Film Festivals. Kempner has made films about lesser-known Jews who made a difference in their lifetimes, and Rosenwald was one of those. The film features interviews from Maya Angelou to Rosenwald’s grandchildren and it shows the difference that Rosenwald made in American culture. We are all aware of the importance of ndifferent ethnic groups coming together and we also know that by working together, we can end racism and discrimination. I have always felt that we have been afraid of each other because we have not bothered to know each other.
The film also explores Rosenwald’s relationships with other leaders, such as Rabbi Emil Hirsch of Chicago’s Sinai Congregation where Rosenwald was a member and who inspired him to think about the responsibility that he had to repair society and his community. We should all be proud to say we share that responsibility.