In 1927, Julius Rosenwald sent Abraham Flexner a letter. Rosenwald thanked his friend and fellow Rockefeller Foundation board member for an article on foundations he had sent—and asked for some advice. “After reading the documents,” Rosenwald wrote, “I feel even more the need of having someone who can keep me straight, and when you have the time . . . [to advise me] please remember I want the best man I can get to enable me to use my money wisely.”
Rosenwald was at the time the very successful chairman of Sears, Roebuck, which he had grown into the nation’s largest mail-order catalogue business and was rapidly expanding with a chain of retail stores. He had created the Rosenwald Fund in 1917, a full decade earlier, with the primary goal of administering his highly successful program of building schoolhouses in black communities of the rural South. Even as his fortune continued to grow, he felt himself nearing the end of his own active involvement in giving away his wealth.
Rosenwald realized he would need professional help administering his philanthropy. The person whom Flexner endorsed—and whom Rosenwald hired—is the subject of a new book by Alfred Perkins. Edwin Rogers Embree paints a vivid portrait of a man well qualified by temperament and background to advise Rosenwald.
Born in 1883, Embree grew up in the home of his maternal grandfather on the campus of Berea College in Kentucky. John Gregg Fee had founded the school 40 years earlier to further what he saw as his ministry of eliminating slavery and combating its legacy. It was an unusual place, coeducational both in the sense of being racially integrated and of educating men and women together. Young Edwin had black classmates and friends and the steady example of his fiercely egalitarian, unconventional grandfather. A commitment to improving race relations would become the theme of his career.
Yale University proved likewise formative. Despite being initially refused admission (he enrolled in public high school for a year before he got in) and having to work several jobs to support himself, he graduated in 1906 with a major in the “mental, historical, and social sciences.” The country’s first university sociology course had been introduced at Yale 30 years earlier, and Embree immersed himself in that relatively new field, beginning what would become a lifelong passion for the comparative study of cultures. Yale remained a strong influence; Embree worked for the university for 10 years, first as editor of the Yale Alumni Weekly and later running the office of alumni relations. He became a skilled administrator with a wide network of influential contacts.
The Rockefeller Foundation wooed him away from Yale in 1917. Perkins notes that at that time “no established model for a successful foundation executive existed,” but that “Embree’s experience in university administration fit what was soon to become a pattern of exchange between the academy and organized philanthropy.” His fascination with social science research was consistent with what Perkins sees as the evolving perspective at the Rockefeller Foundation that “the central role of philanthropy was to foster such study, fund projects of experimentation and demonstration, and make available for public adoption the effective innovations thus identified.” One of his early trips for the foundation took Embree to Europe during the First World War, and there he met Julius Rosenwald, familiar to him as a newly appointed Rockefeller trustee.
When Rosenwald enters the story, a rather serious problem emerges. In 1928, Rosenwald would hire Embree away from the Rockefeller Foundation and Embree would run the Rosenwald Fund for remaining 20 years of its existence. But Rosenwald himself is barely present in these pages. Embree’s curious, enthusiastic, instinctively democratic, and optimistic personality is discussed in great detail. Rosenwald’s biography and personality—his immigrant parents and self-made fortune, his extraordinary generosity and eagerness to assist a despised minority, his energy and wide-ranging curiosity, and his uncanny ability to find and develop capable, imaginative colleagues—these are not mentioned.
Perkins tells us that “the two men quickly came to an understanding,” but he offers no description of their interaction, no analysis of why they might have gotten along so well or of what their “understanding” may have been. We are simply told that Rosenwald gave Embree “a broad mandate to move the fund forward.” Clearly enthralled by the dynamic figure of Embree, Perkins seems rather less interested in the extent to which his work at the Rosenwald Fund—the centerpiece of his career and the contribution for which he is remembered—may or may not have reflected the wishes and the intent of the fund’s founder or been influenced by Rosenwald’s vision.
To be sure, one of Rosenwald’s strengths as a manager at Sears had been a willingness to rely on effective members of his staff. Trusting Embree to guide his fund was very much in keeping with this pattern. According to one leading authority on Rosenwald, Embree was hired “precisely to take over the leadership function, the active role in managing the foundation effectively.” Perhaps Perkins believes that the wide latitude Rosenwald gave to trusted subordinates means that Embree’s biography can be written without much reference to Rosenwald. This seems dubious, and it is a problem that undermines the rest of the book.
Besides, it is not as though other biographers have overlooked the relationship between the two men. For example, Perkins cites the work of Rosenwald biographer Peter Ascoli and thanks him profusely for his help. According to Ascoli, Rosenwald agreed with what Embree decried as the “formalistic attitudes, professional viewpoints, and bureaucratic tendencies” at the Rockefeller Foundation; indeed, it was one of the things that drew Rosenwald to Embree. Ascoli similarly quotes Embree as writing to his best friend, writer Clarence Day, that Rosenwald “wants to give wisely, but he is untrammeled by tradition, willing and anxious to do just the kind of creative things that Mr. Rockefeller Sr. started two or three or four decades ago.” Perkins does not, however, draw on Ascoli’s analysis of the relationship between Rosenwald and Embree.
Rosenwald died in 1932. The stock market crash and the Depression had devastated the fund’s assets. Composed entirely of Sears stock, the fund’s corpus plunged from a high of over $40 million in 1928 to just under $3 million four years later. Embree’s response to this crisis was, according to Perkins, “imaginative and bold, reflecting [his] temperament, his capacity for strategic thinking, and his journalistic background. The result was a sharply different orientation for the fund and a type of activity new to the work of organized philanthropy.” There would be “no more expensive showy projects, no large grants to help universities,” writes Perkins. “Instead, the emphasis would be on stimulating fresh thought aimed at innovative action. The fund would become less a source of money and more a source of ideas.”
Was this dramatic change consistent with the intentions of Julius Rosenwald? Perkins does not ask, though he clearly believes it was. While he sidesteps the issue of how Rosenwald might have recalibrated his giving in light of drastically diminished resources, Perkins nevertheless effectively argues that the Rosenwald Fund played a significant and under-appreciated role in facilitating the difficult transition from a deeply segregated to a more open and just society. This achievement Rosenwald would certainly have applauded.
Under Embree’s leadership, the Rosenwald Fund continued its emphasis on education through the 1930s. Embree repeatedly made strong public statements about the importance of educating black as well as white Americans, and backed those statements with grants to southern school libraries, studies of curriculum, and funding for increased teachers’ salaries. In response to the need for a center of higher education for blacks in the South, the fund supported the creation of Dillard University in New Orleans; Edgar Stern, a prominent businessman and Rosenwald trustee (and son-in-law), served as chairman of its board.
A fellowship program that Embree proposed at his first board meeting was enthusiastically approved by Rosenwald. Its fundamental purpose, according to Perkins, “was to make evident that there was nothing inferior about black people, except the opportunities available to them.” The program more than confirmed this, as was amply illustrated by the subsequent careers of Rosenwald fellows like Marian Anderson, Horace Mann Bond, Ralph Bunche, Charles Drew, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Jacob Lawrence, and Gordon Parks.
Indeed, one less-well-known accomplishment of the Rosenwald Fund was its role in providing money for the construction of an airfield at Tuskegee, Alabama. On that field, more than 900 men would train as pilots and then go on to distinguish themselves during World War II as the Tuskegee Airmen. When the first pilots received their wings in 1942, Embree was there to congratulate them.
This personal connection to the recipients of the fund’s support reflected Rosenwald’s own practice. During the 1920s, Rosenwald had benefited small southern schoolhouses for African-American children not just with his money but, on numerous occasions, with his presence and his personal encouragement. Shortly before Rosenwald’s death, in a memo quoted by Peter Ascoli but not mentioned by Perkins, Embree had summed up for Rosenwald what he understood to be the principles that underlay his boss’ philanthropy. They were opposition to perpetual endowments coupled with “a personal interest by the donor in all the activities to which he contributes” and guided by “imagination and courage.”
Edwin Embree’s unusual life is a worthwhile study in itself, and could be an effective prism for considering, as Perkins seems to promise, the development of foundations and their impact on race relations in the 20th century. But by slighting Rosenwald and the relationship with him that made possible the most important part of this career, Perkins ignores a vital part of the very story he has set out to tell.
Stephanie Deutsch is the author of the forthcoming You Need a Schoolhouse: Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald, and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South.