Barry Saunders

Saunders: Rosenwald gave his fortune for black children’s schools

Philanthropist Julius Rosenwald helped build schools for blacks across the South.
Philanthropist Julius Rosenwald helped build schools for blacks across the South.

Julius Rosenwald invested in Sears when it was struggling, then became part owner and president just before it turned into – filmmaker Aviva Kempner said – “the Amazon before its time.”

That timely investment made Rosenwald a multi-millionaire at a time when one dollar was worth $27 in today’s cash.

There are people throughout the South, though, who’ll swear that hooking up with Richard Sears in his fledgling company was only Rosenwald’s second best investment.

The first – “by far,” Kempner said – was the investment Rosenwald made in education. The Sears Holding Corp. just suffered through a horrendous fourth quarter, but the descendants of the descendants of the poor children provided educations by Rosenwald’s largess continue paying dividends.

Rosenwald helped fund the construction of more than 5,000 schools throughout the South, quietly paid some of the cost of the Brown vs. Board of Education legal battle to end segregation, and his foundation enabled people as disparate as Marian Anderson, Gordon Parks, Ralph Ellison, Katherine Dunham, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Dr. Charles Drew and Woody Guthrie to do their things.

Yes, it’s okay to say “Wow.”

And you’ve probably never heard of the dude, have you?

Kempner wants to change that. “I guess it’s my role in life to bring these ‘under-known’ Jewish heroes to life,” she told me in a telephone interview recently. She’s also made documentaries about baseball player Hank Greenberg and comedienne Gertrude Berg.

Triangle-area Rosenwald School alumni got together Sunday to talk about their experiences and watch Kempner’s documentary “Rosenwald” at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. In today’s rancid political and social climate – heard the one about the plane passengers who, appallingly, applauded when an ill child and his family were escorted from their flight? – it’s soul-cleansing to learn about someone who made the world a better place.

That’s what Rosenwald did with his eponymous schools and fund.

If you watch the film or hear Kempner in interviews, you’ll easily understand why Rosenwald became more famous for his philanthropy than for his considerable business acumen.

You know what?

“He absolutely preferred that,” Kempner said. “Even as a young married man, he already had this principle that his family tells about – save a third, spend a third and give away a third. Charity was a very important principle.”

Rosenwald was born in Springfield, Ill., in a house across the street from Abraham Lincoln’s. He read while young Booker T. Washington’s autobiography “Up From Slavery,” and Booker T. and he became friends. He asked the former slave and founder of Tuskegee Institute what he wanted.

A new building? Some money?

Nah, man. Washington bemoaned the lack of preparation with which too many black students from the Jim Crow South arrived at Tuskegee, and he suggested Rosenwald address that issue by focusing his charity on elementary schools. He did.

Claudia Brown, of the N.C. Historical Preservation Office, said “N.C. had more (Rosenwald Schools) than any other state. We had 813 projects. The Rosenwald Fund provided the seed money, 10 to 20 percent, and the local folks would provide the rest.”

The schools, she said, “were part of the public school system, but the funding came from a variety of sources. Some came from school boards, some from donations from the white community, some from the black community.

“They replaced woefully inadequate facilities,” she said – or non-existent ones. “They were in rural areas, one- and two-room schools with a third room for industrial or home economics.”

Only after talking with Brown and visiting the Fisk University database that contains the names and locations of all the schools – rosenwald.fisk.edu – did I discover that at least four Rosenwald schools were constructed in little bitty Richmond County, my home.

I asked Kempner what did she want people who watch her film to think, to feel, to do.

“Not all of us can give away $62 million,” she said, “but all of us can be like a Rosenwald... I want it to inspire giving. We have a lot of problems with education all over the world, but especially in rural areas and inner cities... I just hope it’ll inspire a lot of people to make a difference.”

It is the supremest irony that Rosenwald, who dropped out of school at 16 to learn the clothing business, and Washington, an ex-slave whom it was illegal to educate during his childhood, are among this country’s greatest educators.

Go figure.

Better yet, find a way to go see the film.

Then go help.

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