Another Step Closer to Honoring Julius Rosenwald and Self-Reliance in America

This month, amidst a flurry of news, an important honor for the philanthropic giant Julius Rosenwald came one step closer to fruition.

On January 13, President Trump signed into law HR 3250, known as the Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Schools Act of 2020. As my colleague Debi Ghate reported on the blog recently, this bill directs the U.S. Department of the Interior to study the feasibility of designating sites associated with the life and legacy of Julius Rosenwald as a part of the National Park Service.

The honor is well worth it for a man who combated illiteracy and education gaps among black children in the Jim Crow South.

Rosenwald, the son of Jewish immigrants, was part owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. After amassing his wealth, he turned his focus to helping black Americans improve their own lives and futures through education and self-reliance. In short, he helped finance the construction of 5,357 schools in 15 southern states between 1912 and 1932. But there is so much more to the story.  

Working together, Rosenwald and black citizens in cities and towns across the South achieved a tremendous feat that led to the education of more than 600,000 black students. You might be familiar with the names of a few alumni: poet Maya Angelou, former Democratic Representative John Lewis of Georgia, and even Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. 

Rosenwald’s giving is notable and can inspire donors, but the other part of his story sets a model for how to achieve philanthropic excellence. The black community came together and partnered with Rosenwald to build the schools for their children and to build up the communities that supported those new educational centers. This led to a renaissance in black communities in the face of inequality and brutal racism. 

The Rosenwald schools began with a $2,800 seed from a larger gift Rosenwald made to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee University in Alabama. Washington proposed constructing six schools as part of an experiment in self-help, an idea he was championing at the time as the best way forward for blacks.

Each building would cost no more than $600, and Washington required that people in the community raise an equal amount to what Rosenwald donated so that they would have a sense of ownership and commitment. They held bake sales, dinners, and other fundraising events to raise money and construct the buildings. 

Lester Mae Hill, a nurse living in Cairo, Illinois, recalled in a 2015 documentary how the community came together to support their local Rosenwald school: “Twice a month, we’d have a fundraiser for the school, and everybody participated—even people who didn’t have children.

Cash was not the only contribution community members made. They donated labor, land, and materials to construct the schools. This meant that those who could not afford to give money could still participate in the effort. 

The experiment was a success and eventually spurred the construction of thousands of schools for black kids, many of whom were the children of sharecroppers who had never once stepped foot in a classroom. When the KKK burned down a school, the community came together, again, and rebuilt it. 

We often think of the success of Rosenwald’s philanthropy being the gifts he made, but truly it was the power of the gifts to galvanize the community to action and self-reliance.  

Philanthropy often plays a convening and catalytic role, bringing together individuals, donors, and institutions within a community for a collective effort. Because the community owns the project, their commitment continues well after the initial gift is exhausted, and the project lives on beyond the donor. 

As communities across America face the challenge of getting children back on track educationally, the unemployed back to work, business reopened, and the sick back to health after the pandemic, the Rosenwald schools may serve as an inspiration for philanthropic engagement in those efforts.  

This American story also reminds us that donors can support the empowerment of individuals, combat inequalities, and close opportunity gaps by investing in successful models that boost self-reliance.

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