“Rosenwald school” is a curious name that sounds like the Jewish equivalent of a Catholic Magdalene home, where unmarried pregnant girls of yore were tucked away to do laundry for nuns until they had their babies. It’s not; it was actually a number of schools for black children built in the American South during the early 20th Century. I never heard of these or the man whose name they bear, Julius Rosenwald. Biographer Aviva Kempner tells his story in a decidedly straightforward manner through photos, narration, clips, and interviews with descendants, historians, and Rosenwald school alums like Maya Angelou and Congressman John Lewis. At the end, we even hear from Rosenwald himself.
Born in Springfield, Illinois, where he lived across the street from the Lincoln home, Rosenwald—who considered himself “a member of a despised minority”—first made a name selling men’s clothes with his cousin. A series of fortuitous events resulted in a partnership with Sears Roebuck in Chicago in 1895. He got rich creating the Sears catalog, the Amazon of a hundred years ago, as one interviewee calls it. Motivated by a number of things—his friendship with Booker T. Washington, Chicago Sinai congregation rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (“repair the world”), Washington’s Up From Slavery and William Henry Baldwin, Jr.’s An American Citizen, and a disturbing similarity between the persecution of blacks in the States, particularly the South, and that of Jews in Russia—he started a fund to build schools where the government apparently wouldn’t. He also offered money to build YMCAs in various cities.
Rosenwald’s funding scheme was unique: he paid a third of the cost, with the rest of the funding to be provided (or raised) by the community where the school or YMCA would be built. It worked, and more than 5,000 schools were built. Rosenwald didn’t stop there: he also contributed to housing in Chicago, established the Museum of Science and Industry, and set up a fund for artists and intellectuals. Recipients were in diverse disciplines and included Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Katherine Dunham, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Dr. Charles Drew, and even Woody Guthrie. Rosenwald is intriguing not just for its named subject but also for the subjects it gets into on the side: American civil rights, art, and Chicago history.
(Gene Siskel Film Center) B