‘Rosenwald': A Documentary Examines Philanthropist’s Aid for Black Schools

By Mark Walsh — August 13, 2015 4 min read
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A dozen years ago, Washington filmmaker Aviva Kempner was on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts to hear a talk about civil rights by the longtime activist Julian Bond.

The topic of Bonds’ talk at the Hebrew Center was the relationship between African Americans and Jews, and Kempner was expecting him to discuss the 1960s. Instead, Bond spoke about the work of a Jewish titan of U.S. business in the early 20th century—Julius Rosenwald—and his partnership with Booker T. Washington to improve the education of African Americans in the South.

Rosenwald, the son of an itinerant Jewish immigrant peddler, was the president of Sears, Roebuck & Co. Working with architecture students from Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, he helped fund some 5,300 small schools for blacks in 15 states in the South, from 1913 to 1932.

Kempner says she was inspired to make a documentary about Rosenwald. Such a film would fit her pattern of films highlighting underappreciated Jewish heroes, she says. Other films of hers include “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” about the1930’s and 40s baseball star; and “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” about Gertrude Berg, the writer and star of the radio and early TV show, “The Goldbergs.”

On Friday in New York, and on Aug. 28 around the country, Kempner’s film “Rosenwald” will be released.

The film’s working title had been “The Rosenwald Schools,” reflecting the core of the story about the school buildings for Southern blacks. But Kempner shortened the title to “Rosenwald” after showing it on the festival circuit over the last year or so.

“The last third of the film is about the Rosenwald Fund,” Kempner said in an interview. Rosenwald’s philanthropy funded a stunning variety of projects, including grants to the historian John Hope Franklin, the poet Langston Hughes, and to the training of the Tuskegee Airmen.

The first third of the film is about Rosenwald’s rise to become leader of Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck. It’s a fascinating story that Kempner tells with interesting graphics, shots of early Sears catalogues, and even TV and movie clips highlighting Jewish peddlers.

Rosenwald was strictly business as he helped build Sears into the of its heyday. (The CEO had the Sears catalogue printed in a slightly smaller format than that of rival Montgomery Ward & Co., so that homemakers would store the Sears book on top, making it more likely to be consulted first when it was time to order a product.)

As Rosenwald became one of Chicago’s wealthiest business leaders, he began to look for ways to help society, and he was influenced by Rabbi Emil Hirsch of Chicago Sinai Congregation. After reading Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Rosenwald met with the African-American leader in 1912 and began seeding the development of YMCA and YWCA facilities for blacks.

Rosenwald soon turned to helping fund the schools that would bear his name, and that story takes up the middle third of Kempner’s film.

Rosenwald typically provided only one-third of the money needed for each school, with a third coming from the state or local school district, and a third raised by the African-American community. The schools were considered public schools and were a marked improvement for blacks over existing “separate but equal” facilities in many communities, and were the only educational option for them in others.

More than 660,000 African-Americans in the South attended Rosenwald Schools,

After Rosenwald’s death in 1932, the schools no longer bore his name and their funding ceased. That combined with the slow but eventual successes of desegregation led many of the Rosenwald School buildings to fall into disrepair.

As Joetta Sack reported in an Education Week story in 2004, a movement began in the 1980s to preserve the remaining Rosenwald Schools.

“Rosenwald” has an impressive array of interview subjects, including descendants of Rosenwald and of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, as well as the poet Maya Angelou, the actor Ossie Davis, the poet Rita Dove, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, and the journalist Cokie Roberts.

“I thought my school was grand. It was the Lafayette County Traning School, so there,” says Angelou, who died last year.

Kempner’s film opens with a gathering of alumni of a Rosenwald school in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, with one elderly graduate of the now-restored school looking at the portrait of Julius Rosenwald. As a student decades ago, Frank Brinkley would wonder why there was a portrait of an older Jewish white man hanging in the school, alongside one of Booker T. Washington.

“We would always ask who it was, and we were told it was the man who built the school,” Brinkley says in the film.

Another graduate, Lester Mae Hill, says: “I’m very proud that he did [build it]. But if he was here, I would ask him what was his real interest that made him do it for the African-American kids?”

Kempner’s film goes on and answers that question clearly and entertainingly.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.