During the years leading up to school desegregation, one third of the African-American children in the South got their early education in schoolhouses with individual names but often referred to, affectionately, as “Rosenwald” schools. Yet Julius Rosenwald, the businessman, philanthropist and civic leader whose death in January 1932 was front page news across the country, is today, largely forgotten. An opponent of perpetual endowments, he designed the foundation that bore his name to sunset within 25 years of his death. So, in 1948, the Julius Rosenwald Fund closed its doors. While the name is not well remembered, the legacy of Rosenwald’s remarkable career endures. In fact, Congress has directed the National Park Service to study the feasibility of creating a national historical site honoring him and the 4,997 schools for African-American children across the South built with his financial assistance.
Rosenwald was born in 1862 in Springfield, Illinois to parents who had fled poverty and anti-Semitism in Germany. As a boy he learned the clothing trade working weekends in his father’s store and the principles of Judaism with other children in the town’s small Reform congregation. He left home without graduating from high school in favor of apprenticeship with successful uncles in New York. In 1885 Rosenwald moved to Chicago and, with his brother and a cousin, established a company to manufacture men’s clothing. Ten years later, when offered the opportunity to buy into a small, unknown mail-order business called Sears, Roebuck & Co., he decided in an instant that this was a business with a future, and he was right. By the time he was in his mid-forties, Rosenwald was a millionaire many times over.
As a newly wealthy man, Rosenwald addressed with purpose the responsibility he felt to constructively share some of his phenomenal fortune. At his synagogue, Chicago’s Sinai Congregation, Rosenwald was attentive to Emil Hirsch, a nationally known promoter of faith-based social activism – what Christians were calling the Social Gospel. It was Hirsch who introduced Rosenwald to Jane Addams and encouraged him to support her outreach to newly arrived immigrants. Yearly gifts to Addams’s social settlement Hull-House were among his earliest contributions.
When a friend gave him a copy of Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington’s powerful memoir of his childhood in slavery and his adult life as founder and director of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Rosenwald paid close attention. He had been struck by parallels between violence against Jews in Europe and a major race riot in 1908 in his hometown, Springfield. So, when the opportunity arose for him to meet Washington, Julius Rosenwald eagerly accepted.
Beginning with a luncheon in Chicago in 1911, the relationship between Rosenwald and Washington developed into a productive friendship. Washington invited Rosenwald to visit Tuskegee, which he did in the fall of 1911, bringing a train car full of family and friends including Rabbi Hirsch and Jane Addams to spend two days on the campus. Favorably impressed, Rosenwald agreed to serve on the board of Tuskegee.
But ongoing conversations between the two men revealed another need. Public education was mandatory throughout the South but the states were dividing their funds unequally between separate systems for whites and Blacks. Many Blacks – farmers and sharecroppers and domestic workers – were saving and raising money so they could provide for their children the education they themselves had been so systematically denied. Rosenwald and Washington conceived a program that would pair this money with grants from Rosenwald and would then pull in local school systems, encouraged by these outside initiatives, to meet their obligations toward their Black citizens.
The Rosenwald program was so successful that it built more than 5,300 schools, shop buildings and teachers’ homes in 15 states. People in almost 5,000 separate communities came together, raising money and donating land and labor, thereby securing what they felt sure would be a better future for their children. And indeed, Rosenwald school graduates went on to higher education, successful careers and a commitment to civic engagement.
A journalist visiting the Sears, Roebuck plant once asked Julius Rosenwald how it felt to have so many people working for him. His response explains a lot about his success, both in business and in philanthropy. “I don’t really think of them as working for me,” he said. “I think of them as working with me.”
Stephanie Deutsch is a writer living in Washington, DC. She is the author of You Need a Schoolhouse, Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald and the Building of Schools for the Segregated South and serves on the committee working to establish a Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald Schools National Historical Site.