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ROSENWALD, THE INCREDIBLE STORY OF AN UNKNOWN CIVIL RIGHTS HERO

Julius Rosenwald with students from a Rosenwald School (Courtesy of Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library) By Andrea Lita Rademan Tony Award winning playwright George Wolfe, poet Maya Angelou, U.S. Representative John Lewis, Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post and the ancestors of Loretta Lynch (US Attorney General) and law professor Anita Hill have something in common. So do Marian Anderson, James Baldwin, Julian Bond, Ralph Bunche, W. E. B. DuBois, Katherine Dunham, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Gordon Parks. The latter are just some of the African American intellectuals and artists who won Rosenwald grants. The former are among the prominent alumni and educators who attended Rosenwald Schools. If the name “Rosenwald” doesn’t exactly ring a bell it will after you see Aviva Kempner’s Rosenwald, which tells the little-known story of Julius Rosenwald, the son of a German immigrant who was inspired by the Jewish ideals of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) to fight racial inequality in nineteenth century America. Born in 1862 in Springfield, Illinois, across the street from Abraham Lincoln, in 1884 he started a clothing business with his brother. They then partnered with the owner of Sears Roebuck & Co. By 1906 Richard Sears and Julius Rosenwald had become the sole heads of the company and they took it public. Their profits exploded and Julius, who ultimately helmed the company, became one of the wealthiest men in America. Although he maintained a relatively modest personal life, over his lifetime he gave away close to a $1 billion in today’s dollars. Spurred on by the parallels between the pogroms against European Jews and violent attacks on blacks in America, especially the race riots in 1908 in Springfield, which sparked the founding of the NAACP, the seeds of his philanthropy developed from his friendship with Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute. In 1912 Rosenwald gave $25,000 to Tuskegee and Booker T asked that, at a time when rural African-American children in southern states seldom received any public education, the funds be used to build rural schools. 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. They started with six schools in Alabama, built under Dr. Washington’s supervision. After that initial success, Rosenwald continued providing matching funds for the project, eventually building more than 5,000 schools and educating more than 660,000 children. By the time segregation ended, the Rosenwald Schools were educating one third of the South’s African American children but Rosenwald directed that, 25 years after his death, the schools not bear his name and funding cease. Rosenwald also initiated the establishment of 25 YMCA-YWCAs across the U.S. to serve African-Americans, established one of the nation’s first housing projects and created The Rosenwald Fund Fellowship Program to provide grants to talented African Americans and white Southerners in various fields. This “was the single-most important funding agency for African- American culture in the 20th century,” poet Rita Dove says in the film. In 1941 a resourceful Eleanor Roosevelt, a new trustee at the Rosenwald Fund, took a much-publicized ride in a biplane with a Tuskegee flight instructor. Soon after, Blacks gained the right to serve in the Air Force. “It’s a wonderful story of cooperation between this philanthropist who did not have to care about black people, but who did, and who expended his considerable wealth in ensuring that they got their fair shake in America,” Julian Bond, the renowned civil rights leader, says in the documentary. As the most famous former student of the Calvert Rosenwald School in Texas. the late Tom Bradley, former mayor of Los Angeles, would surely have agreed. Aviva Kempner’s award-winning films celebrate the untold stories of Jewish heroes, including Partisans of Vilna about Jewish resistance against the Nazis, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, about the Jewish slugger who fought anti-Semitism in the 1930’s and 40’s, and Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, the story of television pioneer Gertrude Berg, who won the very first Best Actress Emmy and paved the way for women in the entertainment industry. About her latest film, Kempner says, “Not all of us can be Julius Rosenwald but we can all do something.”


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