In an age that exalts politicians and entertainers who can’t stop telling us how wonderful they are, it is refreshing to honor a man who accomplished a lot without wanting his name on all of it.
Julius Rosenwald, who never finished high school but rose to become president and co-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Co., didn’t want his name on the store that he led to worldwide success.
Rosenwald, who died in 1932, didn’t want his name on Chicago’s magnificent Museum of Science and Industry, although he funded and promoted it so much that many Chicagoans called it “the Rosenwald museum” anyway.
He didn’t want his name on his other edifices, including more than 5,000 schools that he helped fund for black schoolchildren across the segregated South.
Yet, alumni of those schools still call them “the Rosenwald schools.” I know. Some of those alumni are in my family.
I discovered that tidbit of family information in the way journalists often stumble across information about themselves while pursuing stories about somebody else.
I was being interviewed by Washington, D.C., filmmaker Aviva Kempner for her new documentary movie “Rosenwald” when she asked me if any of my Southern relatives, most of them in Alabama, attended Rosenwald schools. I didn’t know, I said, but it was possible. I have a lot of cousins.
I later asked my cousin Willie Howard, a whiz in the telecommunications industries, and he broke out in a big grin.
“We all did,” he said.
Alumni more famous than my cousins include poet-author Maya Angelou; director George C. Wolfe; Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.; and Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, all of whom are interviewed in the film.
Indeed, Kempner’s “Rosenwald,” now opening in select theaters, may well leave you convinced that former United States poet laureate Rita Dove, another Rosenwald school alum, was right when she called the Rosenwald Fund “the single most important funding agency for African-American culture in the 20th century.”
Besides underwriting the mostly rural grade schools, the Rosenwald Fund awarded fellowships to such rising stars as classical vocalist Marian Anderson, poet Langston Hughes, painter Jacob Lawrence, photographer Gordon Parks and writers James Baldwin, Arna Bontemps, Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison.
The most intriguing question that the film explores is why Rosenwald, whose father immigrated from Germany in 1851 with $20 in his pocket, was so modest yet so generous.
As the late civil rights leader Julian Bond, whose father and uncle were Rosenthal fellows, puts it in the film, “He did not have to care about black people, but he did.”
The answer, Rosenwald’s biographers say, can be found in his faithfulness to the Jewish ideals of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world).
In one of his speeches, Rosenwald said, “We like to look down on the Russians because of the way they treat the Jews, and yet we turn around, and the way we treat our African-Americans is not much better.”
Rosenwald funded a third of the cost and the local government (usually the state boards of education) would contribute a third. The final third would come from the local black community in donations of cash and labor.
The biggest value to Rosenwald’s story is the portrait of interethnic cooperation between blacks and Jews that it offers, especially in our current socially and politically polarized times.
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