Definitely keep an eye out for the new documentary “Rosenwald,” opening soon around the country. Another love project by Aviva Kempner, who made the documentary “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” and another on Hank Greenberg, this film on Julius Rosenwald is deeply touching and profoundly inspiring.
JR believed ‘give while you live’, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that by doing so, he changed the culture and future of the U.S. He promised his young wife that he would save $5000, spend $5000, and give $5000. That was just the beginning.
Son of an immigrant peddler, he manufactured men’s clothing in Chicago, making his first fortune in men’s suits. Richard Sears was intrigued, ran an ad for JR’s line, and was swamped by over 1000 orders. Rather than pay his bill, he made JR a partner. Rosenwald’s business acumen perfectly balanced Sears’ marketing brilliance.
Then the real philanthropy began. First, JR funded YMCAs for African Americans. Young men who moved for a job needed a place to live, and Jim Crow eliminated their options. In Chicago, JR put up 1/3 of the money ($25,000) to build a Y, as long as the black community raised the rest.
Twenty-seven Y’s popped up around the country following this model. Booker T. Washington then showed JR how critical education was to changing the life of American blacks. JR had no trouble associating the KKK with the pogroms in Russia. He was outspoken in criticism of white America, and then he acted. Build schools for black children.
Again using the 1/3-2/3 funding split, this time, 1/3 came from the states’ board of education. Separate but equal. Washington rejected JR’s offer of using Sears Prefab buildings for the schools. Pride would come with community sweat equity.
Lots of fish fries and collections of pennies, combined with the states’ and JR’s funds, led to an astonishing 5357 new schools across the South. Reportedly, one in three African American children attended a Rosenwald School. Some were burned by whites, but were rebuilt, often more than once, until the dominant community accepted the schools, and its concomitant risk of shared power that education promises. The whole process was a study in community resilience.
You would be astounded by all the cultural icons that attended a Rosenwald School, not limited to Maya Angelou, John Lewis, and James Baldwin, to name a shortlist few.
JR also funded the Tuskegee Institute and its later Airmen, who returned from the war with confidence and a sense of self that led to the Civil Rights Movement. Rosenwald’s Fund kickstarted the emerging careers of young artists like Aaron Douglas and Augusta Savage, dancers such as Katherine Dunham, and writers including James Baldwin, Rita Dove, and Langston Hughes, along with singer phenom Marion Anderson.
Jacob Lawrence created his Great Migration series under a Rosenwald Fellowship. Gordon Parks got his start, before his FSA funding. And Woody Guthrie got a fellowship to travel through the South.
JR funded museums, housing communities, Jewish charities, and more, before passing away in 1931. The Fund depleted in 1948, after gifting over $70 million (consider the era!). Give while you live.
Influenced by his Rabbi, the powerful social activist Emil Hirsch, and the visionary Washington, JR personified tikkun olam–repairing the world with all his heart, proudly not becoming a man of his times.
Here’s a sneak peek of the film: