The media has given considerable attention to billionaires such as Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, among others, who have made public plans to use the majority of their wealth for philanthropic pursuits. However, they are far from the first wealthy Americans who have sought to give back. Indeed, more than 100 years ago, Jewish businessman Julius Rosenwald was building a fortune that would become the foundation of some of the most effective philanthropy in the history of the United States.
Rosenwald charted a course for his many philanthropic endeavors with the help of activists and community leaders. His work, which culminated in a broad charitable campaigns for education, offered African Americans throughout the South with incredible opportunities. Moreover, several of the most prominent black public figures in the United States received their primary education through Rosenwald’s efforts. Today, Rosenwald is being recognized once again, due in part to a new documentary on his life and work. His story serves as an excellent reminder of how Jewish philanthropy can change lives.
Rosenwald and the Birth of Sears
Born in 1862, Julius Rosenwald grew up in Illinois and learned his father’s trade: making and selling clothes. Eschewing the final two years of his high school education, he relocated to New York City, where he served his uncles as an apprentice at their clothing manufactory. By 1892, Rosenwald had become a success in his own right, specializing in men’s suits. One of his biggest clients would be his future employer, Richard Sears.
In the late 1800s, Sears and his partners at Sears, Roebuck & Co. had become the Industrial Age version of today’s online retailers. The company’s catalog business was growing at an exponential rate, and Richard Sears was not a particularly gifted manager. After Sears offered Rosenwald a partnership at Sears, Roebuck & Co. in 1895, he quickly proved himself to be a remarkably talented organizer. By 1908, when Rosenwald became president after Sears’ resignation, annual sales rose from $750,000 to an extraordinary $50 million, a sales volume that would likely be measured in the trillions of dollars today after accounting for inflation. Rosenwald led Sears as president and, after he retired, as chairman of the board until his death in 1932. In the process, he earned considerable personal wealth.
Tikkun Olam Beckons
By all accounts, Rosenwald was a humble man who took the responsibility of his wealth seriously. A deeply religious man, Rosenwald was particularly inspired by Emil Hirsch, a rabbi who instructed him that “property entails duties” and stressed the importance of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world.” Hirsch became Rosenwald’s first link to the world of activism and philanthropy, introducing him to numerous important philanthropists such as Jane Addams.
However, it was the writing of Booker T. Washington that inspired Rosenwald’s greatest acts of charity. After finishing Washington’s biography, Rosenwald was driven to pursue a personal relationship with a man who was easily the country’s most prominent African American. On Rosenwald’s 50th birthday, he announced that he would be donating $700,000 to various charities, one of which was Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Washington decided to use part of the gift to set up an experimental school for black students in Alabama. The success of that school led Rosenwald to devote himself to Washington’s mission: educating African Americans in the South.
The Rosenwald Schools
Today, the reach of the Rosenwald program is incredible. One man’s fortune led to the creation of more than 5,000 schools, one for nearly every significant population of African Americans in the South. In 1932 alone, more than one-fourth of all African American children in the country were receiving their education at a Rosenwald school, including more than one-third of African American children in the South.
An astute businessman, Rosenwald did not simply pay for the schools himself. Instead, he partnered with local communities and their businesses in order to accomplish his philanthropic goals, setting matching grant goals in order to encourage local action to achieve better educational standards. Rosenwald’s efforts led to such endeavors as a “Rosenwald Patch,” through which sharecroppers would set aside part of their cotton profits to put toward a new Rosenwald school. In the end, Rosenwald contributed roughly 15% to each school, with 16% coming from the local African American community and the remainder from the government. While Rosenwald donated to numerous projects prior to his death in 1932, including the funding of the creation of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, as well as millions of dollars spent on projects benefiting Russian Jewish immigrants to the city, it would be these schools that would cement his legacy as one of the country’s greatest philanthropists.
The Rosenwald Legacy
Given that one in three Southern African American students who went to school in the age of segregation attended a Rosenwald school, it comes as no surprise that many of the most prominent African American voices in the United States were shaped by Rosenwald’s gift. Alumni of the schools include former Poet Laureate Maya Angelou, U.S. Representative John Lewis, Harlem Renaissance leader Langston Hughes, and opera singer Marion Anderson. In many respects, the African American tradition in the United States as we know it would not have been possible without Rosenwald’s efforts.
Unfortunately, the Rosenwald schools lasted only as long as segregation. After Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Supreme Court unanimously declared segregation to be unconstitutional, the Rosenwald schools were largely left behind in favor of the formerly white-only schools as integration began. A few examples of Rosenwald schools—with their distinctive open architecture and sunlit rooms—remain, and they serve many roles in today’s integrated society. The knowledge that those schools imparted never disappeared, and today Rosenwald’s legacy can be found anywhere African Americans have made their mark on American society.