Julius Rosenwald with students from a Rosenwald school. (Courtesy Fisk University)

Rosenwald redux

A new documentary on philanthropist Julius Rosenwald leaves UChicago on the cutting room floor.

There’s a lot to know about Julius Rosenwald (1862–1932), the Sears executive who gave away $62 million, and yet he is all but forgotten today. Rosenwald, a new documentary by Aviva Kempner, tries to put this right.

The film includes only a passing mention of the University of Chicago, one of the few places where Rosenwald’s name is preserved. A University trustee, he celebrated his 50th birthday in 1912 by making a gift of $250,000—about $6 million in today’s money.

The University used the money for a building to house the geology and geography departments, naming it Rosenwald Hall in his honor. Except he didn’t want the honor. The building had been named when he was “in the Orient,” he wrote to the University later, “and I felt that it would have been extremely discourteous for me to ask to have it changed.”

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"3113","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"393","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]] Rosenwald Hall under construction. (University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf2-07052, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Rosenwald was hugely important to the success of the University in its early days. He led the first major fundraising campaign. He helped raise more than $5 million as a trustee. He facilitated the merger that resulted in the School of Social Service Administration.

But Rosenwald doesn’t have time for any of that. The man just did too much.

Instead, the film focuses on the schools that he built for African American children across the rural South. A canny philanthropist as well as a businessman, Rosenwald offered these communities matching grants. A third of the money for each school came from the Rosenwald Foundation, a third from the white community (usually state education funds), and a third from the black community.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Rosenwald’s role in educating African Americans of that generation. Beginning in 1913, more than 5,000 schools were built.

By 1932, one out of every three black children in the rural South attended a Rosenwald school. The buildings remained in use until the Supreme Court ordered schools to be desegregated in the 1950s.

“We thought it was a beautiful school,” the late Maya Angelou—probably the most famous Rosenwald school alum—says in the film. “Lafayette County Training School.”

The second half of Rosenwald focuses mainly on the Rosenwald Fund Fellowship Program, which provided grants to African American artists and intellectuals. A short list of recipients: writers Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston; photographer Gordon Parks; and UChicago’s own Katherine Dunham, PhB’36, dancer and anthropologist.

Rosenwald himself never finished high school. He got his start selling men’s clothing and then formed a business relationship with Sears. Eventually he became president of the company and one of the richest men in the United States.

Rosenwald’s philanthropy came out of the Jewish ideal of tikkun olam (repairing the world), as well as a deep sense of identification with African Americans as a persecuted minority.

“He did not have to care about black people,” civil rights activist Julian Bond says in the film. “But he did.”


Rosenwald is a documentary about Chicago philanthropist Julius Rosenwald.