The Jewish Philanthropist Who Brought Educational Opportunity to Thousands of Southern Blacks

July 22, 2015 | Lisa Hostein
About the author:

Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932), the son of German-Jewish immigrants, grew up in Springfield, Illinois, worked for many years in the garment trade, and in 1908 became president of Sears, Roebuck. He also invested much time and money in improving the lot of African-Americans. His story is the subject of a new documentary. Lisa Hostein writes:

The [funds] Rosenwald invested in African-American causes in the early 1900s changed the course of education for thousands of children in the rural South and helped foster the careers of prominent artists, including the writer Langston Hughes, the opera singer Marion Anderson, and the painter Jacob Lawrence. . . .

Rosenwald was heavily influenced by his rabbi, Emil Hirsch, the spiritual leader of the Chicago Sinai Congregation, and he became a major benefactor of Jewish causes [as well]. The film’s historians document the parallels Rosenwald drew at the time between the pogroms against European Jews and violent attacks on blacks in America. . . .

When Rosenwald gave a $25,000 gift to Tuskegee University, Booker T. Washington suggested taking a few thousand dollars to build six schools for young children. . . . Rather than donating all the money for the schools, Rosenwald gave one-third of the funds needed and challenged the local black community to raise another third and the local white community to contribute the rest. In the end, some 5,300 schools were built with seed money from the Rosenwald Fund.

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