In 2005, I had the pleasure of meeting Nina Rosenwald at her office in The Chrysler Building in New York City while leading a national referendum in the Presbyterian Church USA.
Later, I learned that she was the granddaughter of Julius Rosenwald and of his extraordinary philanthropy.
Julius was one of the founders of Sears Roebuck and Company, which in the late 1800s and until the 1980s was the largest retailer company in the United States and the world. It was a combination of a Walmart and Amazon because they had a very large network of physical stores but also did an enormous catalogue business. They started with the catalogue in 1892 and then built retail stores beginning in 1925.
In 1911, mutual friends introduced Julius to Booker T. Washington. Washington was born into slavery in Virginia in 1856 but rose to become one of the national leaders in the African American community after the Civil War and published a famous book “Up From Slavery” which is still in print today. He was also one of the founders of one of the first African American colleges in the United States in the 1880s: Tuskegee University in Alabama.
Initially, Julius was invited by Washington to serve on the Tuskegee board and he began making sizable contributions to the school.
(To learn more about Washington and Tuskegee University, see Wikipedia.)
Eventually, their friendship evolved into a plan to build K-12 schools to educate African American children in 15 southern and border states where they were being denied an education by local school boards. (By way of background, in 1896 the US Supreme Court in the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson refused to de-segregate public schools in favor of “separate but equal” schools for African American children, but these 15 states, among others, used the decision to keep their all-white schools while not making any serious effort at funding “separate but equal” schools for African American children.)
Beginning in 1912 and continuing until 1932 when he died, Julius addressed this problem by helping build 4,977 of these schools. (Washington died in 1915.)
There are no accurate figures but rough estimates put the number of students who attended these schools in the hundreds of thousands, with annual enrollment at their peak of approximately 35,000.
Under the Washington-Rosenwald plan, the schools were typically funded in equal shares by Rosenwald, the African American communities where they were built, and local public entities. Most of the schools remained open even after Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, the 1954 US Supreme Court decision that struck down Plessy and required integrated schools, because de-segregation was fought by most local school districts in the southern and border states where the Rosenwald schools were located. The schools eventually closed down when no longer needed by the
Recently, I happened to come across a compelling new book written by Andrew Feiler titled “A Better Life for Our Children” (University of Georgia Press, 2021). Feifer, a gifted historian and photographer, drove 25,000 miles to interview former graduates, teachers, and community leaders and photograph over 100 of the remaining schools (in various stages of decay or restoration). I highly recommend the book or the 2015 prize-winning documentary film: Rosenwald by Aviva Kempner.
The impact Rosenwald schools had was particularly important for the Civil Rights movement that started in the 1950s. Some of its famous graduates included Medger Evers who became the Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, Maya Angelou who became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and later a world famous writer, poet and actress and John Lewis who chaired the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and later a very prominent Congressman from Georgia. (The lives of these great leaders can be researched on Wikipedia. In addition, Congressman Lewis wrote an emotional forward to the Feiler book describing the personal impact his school had on his life, and Ms. Angelou later wrote about her years in an Arkansas Rosenwald school as part of her famous 1969 book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”.)
Another less well-known chapter in Julius Rosenwald’s life was his philanthropy regarding the YMCA. In 1911, he was asked to help fund a new YMCA in Downtown Chicago (the home office of Sears Roebuck) but he refused unless the YMCA also built a new Y for those living in the African American community in Chicago. He succeeded in doing so and that started another two-decade effort by Rosenwald to build 25 YMCAs in 24 cities for use by African American communities.
Next year marks the 150th birthday of Julius Rosenwald. Few philanthropists have ever impacted so many so profoundly.