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The Rosenwald Schools

By Phil Goldfarb

With so much in the news recently about racism and anti-Semitism, a story on a Jew working with an African-American to do some real good is in order!

Julius Rosenwald was born in 1862 to the clothier Samuel Rosenwald and his wife Augusta, a Jewish immigrant couple from Germany. He was born and raised just a few blocks from the Abraham Lincoln residence in Springfield, Illinois, during Lincoln’s Presidency of the United States.

With his younger brother Morris, Rosenwald started a clothing manufacturing company. In 1885, Rosenwald had heard about other clothiers who had begun to manufacture clothing according to standardized sizes from data collected during the American Civil War. He decided to try the system, but also to move his manufacturing facility closer to the rural population that he anticipated would be his market. He and his brother moved to Chicago, Illinois. Once in Chicago, the Rosenwald brothers enlisted more help from a cousin, Julius Weil; together they founded Rosenwald and Weil Clothiers.

In 1893, Sears, Roebuck & Company was a growing mail-order business which served many rural Americans and was beginning to diversify as Rosenwald and Weil became a principal supplier of their men’s clothing. The volumes of unsold merchandise caused by the Panic of 1893 and his declining health led Roebuck to leave the company. Roebuck placed his interest in the company in the hands of Sears who, in turn, offered that half of the company to Chicago businessman Aaron Nusbaum, who in turn brought in his brother-in-law Julius Rosenwald, to whom Sears owed money. In August 1895, Sears sold Roebuck’s half of the company to Nusbaum and Rosenwald for $75,000. The new Sears, Roebuck and Company was re-incorporated in Illinois with a capital stock of $150,000 in August 1895. Sears and Rosenwald got along well, so Nusbaum was bought out for $1.3 million in 1903.

Rosenwald brought to the company a rational management philosophy and diversified product lines: dry goods, consumer durables, drugs, hardware, furniture, and nearly anything else a farm household could desire. From 1895 to 1907, under Rosenwald’s leadership as Vice President and Treasurer, annual sales of the company climbed from $750,000 to upwards of $50 million. The prosperity of the company and their vision for greater expansion led Sears and Rosenwald to take the company public in 1906, with $40 million in stock. After Sears resigned the presidency in 1908 due to declining health, Rosenwald was named president and remained until 1922 when he became chairman until his death.

After the 1906 reorganization of the Sears company as a public stock corporation by the financial services firm of Goldman Sachs, one of the senior partners, Paul Sachs, often stayed with the Rosenwald family at their home during his many trips to Chicago. Julius Rosenwald and Sachs would often discuss America’s social situation, agreeing that the plight of African Americans was the most serious problem in the United States. The millions in the South had been disenfranchised at the turn of the century and suffered second-class status in a system of Jim Crow segregation.

Sachs introduced Rosenwald to Booker T. Washington, the famed educator who in 1881 started as the first principal of the Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers in Alabama. He encouraged Rosenwald, as he had others, to address the poor state of African-American education in the U.S. The need arose from the chronic underfunding of public education for African-American children in the South, as black people had been disenfranchised at the turn of the century and excluded from the political system in that region. Children were required to attend racially segregated and woefully underfunded schools.

In 1912, Rosenwald was asked to serve on the Board of Directors of Tuskegee, a position he held for the remainder of his life. Rosenwald endowed Tuskegee so that Washington could spend less time traveling to seek funding and devote more time toward management of the school. As urged by Washington, Rosenwald provided funds for the construction of six small trial schools in rural Alabama, which were constructed and opened in 1913 and 1914 and overseen by Tuskegee.

Julius Rosenwald and his family then established The Rosenwald Fund in 1917 for “the well-being of mankind.” Unlike other endowed foundations, which were designed to fund themselves in perpetuity, The Rosenwald Fund was intended to use all its funds for philanthropic purposes. It donated over $70 million to public schools, colleges and universities, museums, Jewish charities and black institutions before funds were completely depleted in 1948.

The collaboration of Rosenwald and Washington led to the Rosenwald School building program, one of the largest programs administered by the Rosenwald Fund. Using state-of-the-art architectural plans designed by professors at Tuskegee Institute, the Fund spent more than $4 million to build 4,977 Rosenwald Schools, 217 teachers’ homes, and 163 shop buildings in 883 counties in the 11 states of the former Confederacy as well as Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. In Oklahoma, Rosenwald Schools were built in the small communities of Arbeka, Hobart, Lawton, Leigh, Lehigh, Pleasant Hill, and Stella. Because of their collaboration, approximately one-third of African-American children were educated in these schools. The Rosenwald Fund was based on a system of matching grants, requiring white school boards to commit to maintenance and black communities to aid in construction.

Research has found that the Rosenwald program accounted for a sizable portion of the educational gains of rural Southern black persons in this period. In addition, there were significant effects on school attendance, literacy, years of schooling, cognitive test scores, and Northern migration, with gains highest in the most disadvantaged counties.

Julius Rosenwald died on January 6, 1932 in Highland Park, Illinois, and is buried at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.

Phil Goldfarb is President of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Tulsa and can be e-mailed at: phil.goldfarb@cox.net.

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