Durham News: Opinion

Bob Wilson: The Jewish clothier, the Sears catalog and black schools

A four-day historic-preservation conference in Durham this week brought renewed attention to Russell School on St. Mary’s Road, and for the best of reasons.

Russell School is a Rosenwald school built in the mid-1920s for black children. Its existence is all the more remarkable because Jim Crow and its handmaiden the Klan were riding high in those days.

But that didn’t faze Julius Rosenwald, perhaps the most influential American philanthropist you’ve never heard of. That because he wanted it that way.

However, you have heard of Sears, Roebuck and Co., now simply Sears and still a staple in many an American town. Julius Rosenwald is the man who made Sears a household presence.

A man of surpassing humility, Rosenwald was content for the merchandising titan to bear the name of his business partner, Richard Sears. Rosenwald was the wizard behind the success.

Sears was a salesman to the manner born, but his skill did not translate into organization and efficiency. That was Rosenwald’s suite, and together this odd couple built the Amazon.com of its day. Its Internet was the famously thick Sears mail-order catalog that blanketed rural America.

It was said, no doubt accurately, that almost every home in the interwar era had at least two books, the King James Version of the Bible and a Sears catalog.

Rosenwald was born in Springfield, Ill., in August, 1862. His parents’ home was a block from that of Abraham Lincoln. Rosenwald would live until 1932.

He came from a family of immigrant German Jews. He never finished high school, but he started had his own clothing firm, and that’s how he met catalog entrepreneur Richard Sears.

In 1895, Rosenwald became a partner in Sears, Roebuck and Co. His management skills were so finely tuned that from 1895 to 1907, the firm’s annual sales rose from $750,000 to $50 million.

Rosenwald suceeded Sears as president in 1908 and continued in that position until 1924, when he became chairman of the board.

So what does all this have to do with Rosenwald schools? His friendship with Booker T. Washington and his Tuskegee Institute. Rosenwald gave $25,000 to Tuskegee, and Washington used $2,000 of that amount to build a small demonstration school for black children.

Learning of this, Rosenwald was delighted, and thus was born the Rosenwald School movement.

Rosenwald, however, did not believe in handouts. Every Rosenwald school – eventually 5,000 of them from Maryland to Texas – was a collaborative effort with the communities seeking a school. In some cases, the local contribution was no more than sweat equity.

Rosenwald was steadfast in practicing the ethical mandates of Judaism, and in return he expected the same honesty and accountability from beneficiaries of his largesse.

Usually, black communities raised a portion of the building cost themselves with everything from pie sales to planting “Rosenwald cotton.” But even during Jim Crow, when educating blacks was regarded as near-subversive, Rosenwald’s matching grants were too enticing for governments to ignore.

North Carolina hosted 787 Rosenwald schools, more than any other Southern state. The restored Russell School is one of 18 built in Durham County.

Julius Rosenwald did not practice self-aggrandizement. None of his schools bears his name, but collectively they do. Such was the nature of this extraordinary man.

A brief biography written for Sears contains a moving testament to him: “Rosenwald’s life served as a blueprint for doing everything in one’s power to raise the fortunes of those who otherwise could not do so.”

Could anyone ask for a better epitaph?

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.