September 08, 2015

New Film Puts the Spotlight on an Early Civil-Rights Donor

Courtesy Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Special Collections
Julius Rosenwald with students from a Rosenwald school.
As civil-rights activists and donors grapple with how to build momentum around the Black Lives Matter movement, many Americans are getting an inside view about an unusual philanthropic approach to promoting racial equality with the release of Rosenwald, a new documentary about Julius Rosenwald, an early-20th-century benefactor.

Mr. Rosenwald, who made a fortune as chief executive of Sears, Roebuck and Company, helped provide top-notch education and fellowships to at least two generations of African-Americans who would go on to become some of the most prominent cultural, political, and scholarly leaders of their day, and drivers of the civil-rights movement of the 1950s, ’60s and beyond. Among them: Rep. John Lewis and author Maya Angelou.

Aviva Kempner, the filmmaker who created the documentary, hopes its release will stimulate new thinking about how the lessons of the past can inform today’s effort to promote racial equality.

"We really need to make an assessment of the cycle of poverty, just like during the Jim Crow era when African-Americans were stuck and relegated to the fields," says Ms. Kempner. "We need to talk about giving hope to young kids, especially young men."

She got the idea for the film after hearing civil-rights leader Julian Bond give a talk about the Chicago philanthropist. He noted that at the urging of Booker T. Washington, Mr. Rosenwald helped build more than 5,300 schools for African-American children in the rural South and Southwest. And through his Julius Rosenwald Fund, he supported fellowships that launched the early careers of African-American artists, writers, and intellectuals, including Langston Hughes and Marian Anderson. (Mr. Bond’s father and uncle received Rosenwald fellowships.)

Ms. Kempner, who previously made films about Hank Greenberg, a prominent baseball player of the 1930s and ’40s, and Gertrude Berg, a pioneer of classic radio, realized she had found her next project. 

"I thought, my MO is to make films about under-known Jewish heroes," she says. "So, I’m going to do a film about the greatest philanthropist you’ve never heard of."

12 Years and $1 Million Later

It took a dozen years and $1 million in donations from individuals and foundations to get the film made and distributed to a smattering of theaters around the country, which started showing it this summer and will continue this month. Ms. Kempner plans to be on hand for audience discussions at some of the screenings.

The film is an in-depth trek through Mr. Rosenwald’s life. The son of an immigrant peddler, he rose from an apprentice to a business owner in the clothing industry in the early 1880s to his post at Sears, Roebuck, where he helped take the company public in 1906 — one of the first initial public offerings in American business.

But it was his efforts to help better the lives and prospects of African-Americans that had the longest reach and left the greatest legacy, says Ms. Kempner.

The Power of a Matching Gift

Mr. Rosenwald made his first big splash in philanthropy when the YMCA asked him to donate $25,000 in 1910 to build a club in Chicago for African-Americans. He said he would give that amount to any YMCA in the country that could raise $75,000 for the same purpose.

One year later he joined the board of the Tuskegee Institute, led by African-American educator and writer Booker T. Washington, who would become a major influence on the philanthropist. When Mr. Rosenwald gave the institute $25,000. Mr. Washington suggested the money be used to build schools for African-American children in the rural South, many of whom lived in grinding poverty, lacked access to basic education, or attended dilapidated schools. 

Bruce Guthrie
Filmmaker Aviva Kempner hopes her new film about the early-20th-century benefactor Julius Rosenwald will inspire people to use ideas from the past to promote social equity.

This was the beginning of what came to be known as the Rosenwald Schools, which were beautiful, clean, well-lit places — and points of pride for the 660,000 African-American students who attended as well as their families.

As he did with his YMCA gifts, Mr. Rosenwald got matching gifts for the schools. He would contribute a third of the cost, and the townspeople and state governments would each contribute a third. At Mr. Washington’s suggestion, the schools were designed and built by local African-Americans.

"The matching grants were totally effective in terms of getting things done and making people feel it was theirs," says Ms. Kempner. "In terms of sweat equity, it was really the black communities who owned and cared for the schools."

Rosenwald Schools became the centers of their communities and were sometimes targets for vandalism and arson. A number of the schools burned down, but with Mr. Rosenwald’s financial support, townspeople joined forces to rebuild them quickly.

The schools lasted until school segregation was outlawed in 1954.

Shunning Perpetuity

While the schools provided the kind of education that helped build future African-American leaders, Mr. Rosenwald’s foundation fortified American arts, culture, and scholarship by providing what Ms. Kempner calls "MacArthur genius grants before there were MacArthur genius grants" to the likes of choreographer Katherine Dunham, historian John Hope Franklin, and surgeon and prominent medical researcher Charles Richard Drew.

Mr. Rosenwald was also an unusual philanthropist for his time because he declared from the day he opened his foundation in 1917 that it would not operate forever.

"He believed that a foundation should give what it had in the philanthropist’s lifetime and address the problems that were there at the time," says Ms. Kempner.

By the time he died in 1932, Mr. Rosenwald had given nearly $900 million in today’s dollars to charity, and through the schools and fellowships he helped create generations of African-American leaders — many of whom would, in one way or another, make the country stronger, something the filmmaker hopes today’s wealthy donors will realize.

"I think this is one of the best stories of how your money can work," says Ms. Kempner. "You invest in schools and in culture and the arts, and look what it provides decades or even 100 years later."

Send an e-mail to Maria Di Mento.