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GUEST COLUMN: Philanthropist left an inspiring legacy

April 24, 2017 Updated: May 19, 2017 at 7:51 am

Recently, I attended the showing of Aviva Kempner's documentary "Rosenwald" at Temple Shalom, that should be required viewing in classrooms and living rooms across the country.

The film chronicles the remarkable life of a seminal civil rights champion in America during the first half of the 20th century, Julius Rosenwald.

Born in 1862, he left high school to apprentice in the family clothing business. In 1884, Rosenwald and his brother started a business in the garment industry in Chicago. Incipient Sears, Roebuck and Company soon became one of Rosenwald's principal customers. This relationship led to Rosenwald joining Sears and Roebuck. By 1901, less than a decade after arriving at Sears, Julius owned 50 percent of the company. Five years later, Rosenwald and Richard Sears took the company public, generating $40 million in stock. Two years later, at the age of 45, Julius became the company's president and CEO as well as one of the wealthiest people in America.

After describing how captains of industry amass fortunes, many documentaries come to an end. Not so "Rosenwald." The essence and import of this documentary begins only after one learns how he came to possess considerable wealth and illuminates the unassuming manner in which he applied much of his fortune to bettering the lives of his fellow Americans, many of whom were African-Americans.

As a Jew coming of age during the last half of the 19th century, Rosenwald wasn't immune from the sting of prejudice, which made him sensitive to the similar plight confronting African Americans, particularly those living in the South. In 1911, reflecting on the evil of prejudice, Rosenwald observed, "The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jews more forcefully than other of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which they have suffered and still suffer."

The Jewish belief in the importance of tzedakah (offering charity) and tikkum (repairing the world) were two fundamental tenants that ran throughout Rosenwald's life and motivated him to energetically intercede on behalf of black America.

At a time when YMCAs across the country excluded African Americans, Rosenwald's first significant contribution came in 1910, when he extended challenge grants of $25,000 to any community in the country after they raised $50,000 to build YMCA facilities serving African Americans. Rosenwald's matching funds proposal was aimed at encouraging local citizens - black and white - to help themselves, rather than accept charity, which he felt was demeaning to giver and receiver.

Over the next several decades, 25 YMCAs serving black communities across the country were constructed.

He then directed his attention to advancing educational opportunities for black children, particularly in the rural segregated South by providing matching grants to create black public schools. Between 1915 and 1932, his one-third contribution, and local two-thirds established more than 5,300 schools.

Additionally, Rosenwald endowed $6 million to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, but declined the offer to  have the institution bear his name. He far preferred for his vision of a more just and enlightened world to endure rather than his name.

In 1927, Rosenwald saw the need for a director to oversee the fund. His search led to hiring a Rockefeller Foundation executive, Edwin Embree, cousin of my maternal grandfather, Roger Hill.

Under Embree's leadership, grants were expanded to increase teachers' incomes, and expand library holdings in black public schools and colleges. The founding of Dillard University in New Orleans was due in large part to the Rosenwald Fund. Construction of the airfield and airport at Tuskegee, Ala., was the result of Rosenwald money.

The fund provided hundreds of fellowships in the arts and sciences to talented African Americans and white Southerners allowing them one to three years to develop their talents. Recipients included W. E. B. DuBois, Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson, Woodie Guthrie, Gordon Parks, James Baldwin and Maya Angelou.

Because Rosenwald believed that philanthropists of each generation should "make whole" contemporary wants, he insisted that his fund spend every dollar of its principal and interest within 25 years after his death. Accordingly, the fund came to an end in 1948, 16 years after Julius' death, distributing in the aggregate over $62 million ($1 billion in today's dollars).

Julius Rosenwald exemplifies the considerable impact of a "better angel of our nature." In the age of "selfies," where giving, at any level, is not infrequently a gesture of self-aggrandizement with donor names affixed to endowments and edifices as a quid pro quo, Julius Rosenwald - the man and his fund - are inspiring and worthy of emulating.


Todd Tarbox is a Colorado Springs author.

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