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Julius Rosenwald: Advocate for Equal Opportunity

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Winter 2006

Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck, and Co., saw the way Jews were oppressed in Europe and vowed that he would do something to help end the similar discrimination blacks faced in his own country. Rosenwald, born in 1862, was successful in his own retail trade and then joined Sears. He ultimately built a fortune, much of which he then generously gave to help build nearly 5,000 new schools to serve more than 600,000 rural blacks in 15 states—all of the states of the former Confederacy as well as Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and Oklahoma. He adhered to Booker T. Washington’s strategy of using black resources, aid from white philanthropists, and assistance from the government when possible rather than direct confrontation with the government. Rosenwald began his rural school building project by working with Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Throughout the rural south Rosenwald would be remembered as one of the most generous benefactors of African-Americans and one of those who made the greatest difference in their day-to-day lives.  


Rosenwald made his contributions at a time when Jews were free to enter mainstream society in the United States and succeed to such an extent that men like himself were among the wealthiest and most prominent citizens in the country. Meanwhile Jews in many parts of Europe continued to exist under the same type of discriminatory conditions that plagued blacks in the South. In a speech on October 18, 1922, Rosenwald described how his religion and background influenced his philanthropy: “The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcibly than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which they have suffered and still suffer in the name of Christ, in spite of the fact that He who is said to be the only true Christian that ever lived, was himself a Jew. ... therefore as a Jew, I would naturally have greater sympathy for a persecuted race, and this is probably what has brought to my mind the injustice to, and the helplessness of, the colored man.”  

Rosenwald continued, “As has been said, race prejudice is older than recorded history. The Egyptians, the Syrians, the Persians all looked down with contempt on the struggling races below them. Not only does the record of nations demonstrate beyond the question of doubt, the folly of race prejudice, but its pages are filled with evidence that indulgence of this pet vice is itself a prime factor in the decay of nations, and in modern times I believe Russia is a living example of that theory. May our own country profit by Russia’s example! In Russia the Jew is subject to a thousand infamous restrictions for no earthly reason except that he is a Jew and must be kept down. We Anglo-Saxons, of course, cry out against this as a barbarous outrage, and comment superiorly on the lowness of Russian civilization, and straightway turn around and exhibit the same qualities in our treatment of the Negro, which today is little less barbarous than is the treatment of the Jew in Russia.”  

Influence of Emil G. Hirsch  

Julius Rosenwald was deeply committed to Judaism and his social activism was profoundly influenced by Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch of Chicago’s Sinai Congregation. Hirsch (1851-1923) was the Rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation from 1880 until his death and was recognized as one of the leading religious figures in the nation at the time. An advocate of classical Reform Judaism, Hirsch was widely regarded as one of America’s most influential preachers, with thousands of Chicagoans of all faiths flocking weekly to Sinai’s services.  

Julius Rosenwald credited Hirsch, an outspoken advocate of social justice, labor rights, and racial equality (he authored the social justice plank of the Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism), for inspiring his philanthropy. In fact, it was Hirsch’s friendship with Booker T. Washington that was instrumental in Rosenwald’s interest in African-American education and housing issues. For 25 years, Rosenwald served as Sinai’s Vice President, and as busy as he was, he almost never missed a Sunday Morning Service at Sinai in over 50 years.  

Rosenwald’s Background  

Rosenwald’s parents immigrated in the 1850s from Germany and settled in Springfield Illinois to make their living selling men’s clothes. Julius Rosenwald left school after just two years of secondary school in order to follow his parents into the retail trade. In 1895 he and his brother in law together bought half of Sears.  

When he joined Sears, Rosenwald helped to vastly expand it, and in 1908, the year before it became a public company, Rosenwald became its president. The growing value of the company’s stock became the basis for Rosenwald’ s fortune. Rosenwald was president of Sears from 1908 to 1924, and from 1924 until his death in 1932, he was chairman of the board. His son, Lessing Rosenwald, who would become president of the American Council for Judaism, became chairman of the board of Sears upon his father’s death until 1939.  


Between 1912 and his death in 1932, Rosenwald made the construction of rural schools for African-American students in the South his chief philanthropic project. He made his grants conditional on the donation of money and labor by blacks and money support by local white citizens, believing that white support would foster interracial goodwill. At the program’s conclusion in 1932, it had produced 4,977 new schools, 217 teachers’ homes, and 163 shop buildings to serve 663,615 students in 883 counties across the South. In sum, the Rosenwald Fund contributed more than $4.3 million and the black community raised more than $4.7 million. By 1928 one in five of the schools for African-Americans in the rural South was a Rosenwald school. Rosenwald made these contributions at a time when per capita expenditure for black students in the South was about one-eighth the national average and one-fourth the average for whites in the South.  

Rosenwald began this philanthropy through his relationship with Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute. He agreed fully with Washington’s self-help philosophy, and he sat on Tuskegee’s board of trustees. Rosenwald had already been making matching grants for the construction of YMCA facilities for blacks when in 1912 Washington suggested that Rosenwald sponsor the construction of six schools for African-Americans in rural Arkansas. From that start, Rosenwald’s contributions to rural black education multiplied. In 1914 he offered funds for 100 schools, in 1916 for 200 more, and these contributions would continue to grow. From 1920 to 1928, 400-500 schools were built annually.  

Although the schools came to be called “Rosenwald Schools,” Rosenwald generally provided a relatively small share of the construction costs. For example, in Virginia, contributions toward the total cost of $1,862,665 for Virginia’s 368 schools were: black citizens — $395,759 (21.2 percent); white citizens — $21,028 (1.1 percent); public school boards — $1,173,428 (63 percent); and Rosenwald — $272,450 (14.6 percent).  

Rosenwald Schools  

In an article titled “Rosenwald Schools in the Northern Neck” for the 2005 edition of the “Virginia Magazine of History and Biography” Phyllis McClure writes, “State school administrators, southern progressive reformers, and such philanthropists as Julius Rosenwald allied to advance educational opportunities for African American children in the rural south. Rosenwald’s modest contribution of 15 percent leveraged 85 percent of the total cost of the 368 schools constructed in Virginia between 1915 and 1931. The percentage of black children enrolled in these Rosenwald-assisted schools is not known. However, Horace Mann Bond estimated that in 1932 between 25 and 40 percent of all southern black schoolchildren attended class in Rosenwald-assisted schools. Less well- known than the construction of school buildings were the Rosenwald initiatives to extend the school term in black schools, supplement teachers’ salaries, subsidize transportation, and fund libraries.”  

Rather than building a single school, Rosenwald hoped to use the school as the first step to improving the whole African-American community. He required that the school be built on a two-acre site, so that ideally it would be surrounded by a teachers’ home, practice garden, wells and bathrooms. The students would use the practice gardens and farm plots as part of their vocational education.  

At the time of Rosenwald’s philanthropy, southern states offered few resources for black education. For example, in Virginia, in the mid-1920s there were just eight accredited black high schools compared with 400 white high schools. Moreover, just one of the black high schools was not in a city, leaving rural African-Americans almost no access to secondary education. In Virginia, Rosenwald contributed to building 29 county training schools, 12 vocational shops, and four teacher homes — significantly boosting the meager facilities for blacks in the state.  

Vocational and Academic  

Rosenwald believed black education should be both vocational and academic. McClure outlines what education was like in the Rosenwald schools. “Northern Neck residents who attended Rosenwald schools from the mid-1930s until the late 1950s remember a curriculum consisting of academic and vocational subjects. Both seemed to have been valued. Academic subjects consisted of reading, writing, penmanship, geography, history, and French. Depending on the grade level, mathematics instruction included arithmetic, algebra, and trigonometry. Science was taught in three grades at Northumberland County’s Rosenwald High School. African American history, written tests, and oral presentations were also part of instruction, as was story hour, at which students read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘Julius Caesar.’”  

Although Rosenwald’s chief philanthropic enterprises were the rural schools, he made contributions to many other causes, mostly to benefit African-Americans. He donated to many black universities, and he was one of the first contributors to the College of Medicine at Howard University. Rosenwald also provided significant funds to construct YMCA buildings for blacks throughout the country.  

Chicago Dedication  

At the Chicago YMCA for Colored Men, Rosenwald said, Today we “dedicate this building provided for the inspiration, guidance and improvement of Negro boys and men. But it seems to me (to paraphrase a part of Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg speech) that we should here dedicate more than this building. We should dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work, to the great task before us of removing prejudice, of which unfortunately so much exists; of bringing about a universal acceptance that it is the individual and not the race that counts. In so dedicating yourselves I would impress upon you to bear in mind what every colored man must realize, viz: his responsibility for every other colored man. Every good deed you do will be helpful to every other member of your race. Every disgrace or unkind act committed by a colored man will be a discredit to every Negro. All who are inclined, for instance, to seek their amusement in low saloons and other unwholesome places must be brought to realize that they are not alone injuring themselves, but are disgracing every member of their race. The individual who is guilty of frequenting such places has everything to lose and nothing to gain. This meeting here today, this enterprise we are dedicating today, evidences a contact of the white and the Negro races which should lead to a better understanding of each other in a larger manner than did the money-subscribing campaign. When people begin to understand each other the way is open for fair dealing, for reasonable treatment, for equal opportunity, and for justice. Justice is the basis of social order. Justice will come to you. But you must be patient for its coming.”  

Ownership and Self-Help  

At the Chicago YMCA dedication, Rosenwald explained his philosophy of ownership and self-help, which was exhibited in his stress on joint ventures with the black community and shows the ideological affinity he had with Washington’s philosophy that blacks had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Rosenwald said, “This YMCA has given, and will give, the Negro an opportunity, not to be worked for but to be worked with. It so often is the habit of the white race to complete something for the benefit of the Negro and hand it to him, let him take it away and blame him if he fails to make the best use of the benefaction. You now have an enterprise in which you have participated from the start, for you conducted a campaign for raising money to build it. You have watched it affectionately during the construction period. You are organizing the force to operate the plant. You are going to run it, too. What a chance for you to make good! What a grand opportunity to grow strong! What an efficient help to dissipate prejudice!”  

The Rosenwald Name  

The rural schools that Rosenwald built became popularly known as “Rosenwald schools” and many of his other contributions similarly had his name attached to it. The prominent businessman and philanthropist did not do this out of self aggrandizement, but out of a belief that doing so would increase the value of the contribution. He explained this concept in a lecture before the American Academy of Political and Social Science. “May I venture a suggestion to those well-meaning persons who give anonymously whether on account of modesty or a desire not to be a target. If a man contributes to a worthy cause, his name should go with the contribution. An anonymous contribution, in my opinion, is in all cases less valuable than if the donor be known; and in most cases the value is greatly impaired because the influence which the name of the donor would exert is lost. In many cases the name is worth several times as much as the contribution itself. The knowledge of the contributors’ interest frequently influences others who in turn attract still others; but even anonymous contributions, if there must be such, are far ahead of no contribution.”  


An example of the many grateful letters Rosenwald received from the African-American community in the south came from Margaret Forte, the principal of a school in Middlesex, North Carolina. On February 2, 1923, she wrote to Rosenwald after her community received a $1,100 contribution to build a schoolhouse: “The mothers and fathers in every one of our parent-teachers’ meetings pray that God may guide you on and on to success and that He will bless you with good health and happiness for years to come. I can assure you that you have some friends in the dear southland who are constantly thanking you and loving you for your kindness to us as a community and for our race.”  

A teacher in Wewoka, Oklahoma, wrote to Rosenwald on February 20, 1926, to thank him for his contributions. After thanking him for the stone building that he made possible, she wrote, “Your picture, one that I cut from the cover of a ‘Fisk University News’ four years ago, was neatly framed by my pupils and now hangs on the wall. Your name is a household name in our school and community.” She noted that even the first grade students could identify Chicago as Rosenwald’s home. “They adore you,” she wrote.  

Rosenwald’s passing in 1932 was a tragedy for the black communities that regarded him as one of their primary benefactors. At the time of his death, a black Louisiana schoolteacher offered this eulogy: “Mr. Julius Rosenwald extended a helping hand to the Negro schoolchildren of Louisiana, as well as the children of the other southern states, when there was but little sentiment in favor of providing instruction for Negro children at public expense. ... Negro education in Louisiana is on a much sounder basis than it was before Mr. Rosenwald came to us in his generous cooperative spirit and with his liberal appropriations in the field of Negro education. He proved himself a genuine constructive friend to Louisiana, and we regret deeply his passing. He was an educational statesman and one of the finest types of citizens that this country has produced. We appreciate profoundly his efforts in our behalf, and sympathize deeply with his family in his unfortunate death.”  

Seed Money for the Black Community  

Rosenwald wanted his contributions to act as seed money to aid the African-American community in ways beyond just the schools that he helped build. In McClure’ s conclusion, she writes that he was largely successful in this goal: “Had there not been a Rosenwald funded Rural School Building Program, the percentage of school-age southern blacks enrolled in school probably would have remained at pre-World War I levels for several decades. Without Rosenwald money as leverage, Virginia would, in all likelihood, not have spent as much on black schoolchildren as it did. The Rosenwald schools helped build a middle class by providing access to a secondary school education, however limited, which enabled people to get a college education and move into white- and blue- collar professions. The growth of black schools also opened up job opportunities for black women beyond the agricultural and domestic work to which they had been confined in the rural South. These women were important leaders in their communities, for the stature of teachers ranked just below preachers and deacons in the social hierarchy.”  

McClure continues, “The effort of black communities to secure a Rosenwald school was an important precursor to the campaign for equal educational opportunities that came in the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Rural teachers and the Virginia Teachers Association led the campaign for salary equalization and ultimately for desegregation. Black communities demonstrated that, despite injustices and inequities, they could organize for change and improvement. Historians have credited the Rural School Building Program as a vital step in the creation of an African American self-confidence and determination to prevail under oppressive circumstances.”  

“Benefactor of Mankind”  

With a bit of hyperbole, but clearly displaying his admiration for Rosenwald, Alfred Q. Jarrette who received his primary education at a Rosenwald School in South Carolina and his secondary education from a Jewish preparatory school in New York City, authored a laudatory biography of Rosenwald, titled “Julius Rosenwald: Benefactor of Mankind.” Jarrette concludes this biography with the following: “Julius Rosenwald was a ‘Prometheus’ who brought fire and warmth to a stricken humanity! Black mothers, with babes in arms, knew that their children would have a better chance in life because of Julius Rosenwald.”  

When Julius Rosenwald died, Jarrette continues, “it is said that a grey dust covered the Alabama sun as a brisk, chilled wind swept across the plains. Crumbled snow clouds darkened the entire Northeast. For more than a week, thousands of poor blacks — with bending backs and bowed heads — wept and wailed when word of Julius Rosenwald’s death reached them. Surely, they had lost a friend — their greatest benefactor. Many of the elderly gathered in churchyards while others hovered at the forks of dusty roads praying and shouting. Death had sounded the knell and cast the pall over one of the greatest humanitarians of all time. Whether in the cotton fields of Alabama or the cluttered streets of New York City, black folk knew that they had lost a friend. Julius Rosenwald was gone!”  

A Legacy of Schools  

Remembering the suffering of his fellow Jews in Europe, Rosenwald used his success as a businessman to improve the lot of the least fortunate in his country. He left a legacy of schools throughout the rural South, and other institutions vital to the oppressed African-American community. Perhaps Rosenwald’s most impressive accomplishment was the way he leveraged his money to boost the black community’s efforts to help itself, gain the aid of sympathetic whites and shame reluctant southern state governments into giving more assistance to their least privileged citizens.

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.