Celebrating the Legacy of Julius Rosenwald This Juneteenth

On Monday, the nation will celebrate its newest national holiday, Juneteenth. June 19 commemorates the day in 1865 when the last enslaved people were declared free in America.  

One way to celebrate Juneteenth is through powerful depictions of freedom fighters and their efforts to achieve equality for all. Julius Rosenwald, who rose to become president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, is one philanthropist who comes to mind. Rosenwald, the son of Jewish immigrants, was committed to seeing Blacks improve their lives through education and self-reliance. He helped finance the construction of over 5,300 schools in 15 southern states between 1912 and 1932. His work contributed to the education of more than 600,000 Black students, including poet Maya Angelou and former Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. 

Rosenwald and freed Blacks such as Booker T. Washington, whom Rosenwald partnered with, understood that education would be the key to uplifting Black people. Their new freedom was just the start of a long road to realizing the pathways to opportunity that our Founding Fathers enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Through education, Rosenwald and others would help Blacks become economically independent.  

Yet the challenges they had to overcome were great. In 1880, three out of four (76%) Blacks were illiterate in the South. By 1910, that rate had fallen to one out of three (33.3%). Nevertheless, over 40% of Black men were still illiterate. Rosenwald’s schools taught children and adults alike to read and become productive citizens, leading to tremendous outcomes. A Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago analysis in 2009 found that “The Rosenwald program accounts for at least 30% of the sizable educational gains of Blacks during the 1910s and 1920s.” 

Creating a National Park to Honor Rosenwald 

To honor Rosenwald’s legacy, in 2020, Congress directed the U.S. Department of the Interior to study the feasibility of designating sites associated with the life of Julius Rosenwald as a part of the National Park Service. This move stemmed from the work of the Rosenwald Park Campaign, an organization of volunteers dedicated to honoring Julius Rosenwald and protecting the Rosenwald schools by creating a National Historic Park. Philanthropy Roundtable joins hundreds of organizations in supporting this campaign. 

Some of the very people who are now charged with creating the National Historic Park for the Rosenwald Schools understand firsthand the importance of Rosenwald’s legacy. Robert G. Stanton, the first African-American director of the National Park Service, noted:  

“I personally experienced the pain and stain of segregation under the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine, attending a dilapidated two-room elementary school. With support from the NAACP, my parents and others filed suit in Federal District Court in 1949 to have a new school built in the community and eventually won the case. They were committed to quality education for their children, as were African-American parents throughout the rural south. We children also possessed what Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune called a ‘thirst for education.’ The Rosenwald Schools gave many African-American children access to educational opportunities that they would not otherwise have had.”

In an effort to further promote and raise funding for this National Historic Park, the board of the Campaign commissioned a film entitled “Rosenwald: Toward A More Perfect Union,” directed and produced by Charles Poe, co-founder of the Parks Channel, a new social media platform for content about national parks. This film tells “The extraordinary story of a forgotten philanthropist, a Jewish son of immigrants from Chicago who became a champion for Black education in the Jim Crow South.” Recently, it received the award for best documentary short at the People’s Film Festival in Harlem, New York. 

This film will be shown as part of the Fifteenth Film Festival in the Washington, D.C. area on June 18. Showing this film just before Juneteenth sends a powerful message that, as we remember the end of one of our darkest periods of history, there was a period of hope and inspiration that followed.  

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