Although Julius Rosenwald was my great-grandfather, via my adoptive father, Armand Deutsch, I must confess I knew little about the extent of his amazing charitable work until I saw Aviva Kempner’s inspiring documentary. Best known as chairman of Sears, Roebuck and Company, Julius Rosenwald was born in 1862 in Springfield, Illinois. The son of German-Jewish immigrants, he grew up in a house directly across the street from Abraham Lincoln’s home. Read on…
As his department store/mail-order catalogue business grew, so did his awareness of the plight of African-Americans. Beginning in 1912, influenced by the writings of educator Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald funded more than 5,300 schools in rural areas of the Jim Crow South.
While Rosenwald donated seed money to build these schools, he insisted that local communities take an active part, either through fundraising or participating in the actual building process. When Ku Klux Klan members burned the schools down, Rosenwald quickly rebuilt them.
At one time, it was estimated that one in three black youths attended Rosenwald schools. Alums included W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Dr. Charles Drew, and Gordon Parks, along with Marian Anderson, Katherine Dunham, Anita Hill and scores of others.
Rosenwald also gifted to Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute and, so that graduates could find a place to live, he was influential in building non-discriminatory YMCAs in 25 cities.
Yet, he was such a modest man that when he endowed Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry, he refused to allow it to be named after him.
Until his death in 1932, Julius Rosenwald donated about $62 million. After desegregation in the 1960s, most of the rural schools were abandoned but now there’s a campaign to restore those that are left into community centers.
American filmmaker Aviva Kempner specializes in documentaries chronicling non-stereotypical images of Jews in history, like “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” and “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” about Gertrude Berg.
This time, she utilizes interviews with poet Maya Angelou, Congressman John Lewis, playwright/director George Wolfe, and civil rights leader Julian Bond – along with insightful revelations from Rosenwald biographers/family members Peter Ascoli and Stephanie Deutsch.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Rosenwald” is an enlightening 8, detailing one man’s effective philanthropy.