Dorothy A. Canter | Special to WJW
May is Jewish American Heritage Month, an apt time to share the contributions of Julius Rosenwald, whose challenge grants were pivotal in building nearly 5,000 Rosenwald Schools that educated one-third of African-American children in the South before school integration.
In 2015, I saw D.C. filmmaker Aviva Kempner’s documentary “Rosenwald.” I had never heard of the Jewish philanthropist. It was a transformative experience.
Since then, I have dedicated my life to creating a national park that will tell his inspiring story for generations.
A national parks junkie, I had visited over 300 national parks and served on the boards of several national parks organizations. I knew that not one of the 400 national parks commemorated the life and legacy of a Jewish American. Like Rosenwald’s parents, my grandparents fled antisemitism and hardship in Europe in search of a better life in the U.S. And like Rosenwald, I was raised following the Jewish values of tzedakah and tikkun olam — charity, responsibility and repairing the world.
Unlike Rosenwald, I had many years of schooling and worked as an environmental science adviser for the federal government. I identified strongly with him because he valued the importance of education as an indispensable tool to advance our nation and donated not only his money but his time and expertise to results-oriented projects.
Born in Springfield, Ill., in 1862, Rosenwald left high school early to learn the clothing trade in New York City. By 1885, he was manufacturing men’s suits in Chicago. Sears, Roebuck & Co. was a client, and in 1895, he accepted an offer to invest in the company. Rosenwald’s vision and business acumen helped transform Sears from a struggling enterprise into the powerhouse national retailer, making him richer than his wildest dreams.
A regular attendee of services at the Chicago Sinai Congregation, Rosenwald was greatly influenced by its charismatic Rabbi Emil Hirsch, a nationally recognized advocate for social justice and founding member of the NAACP. Following Hirsch’s guidance, Rosenwald became a pioneering philanthropist determined to improve the wellbeing of African Americans.. His first project was a challenge grant of $25,000 to any city that would raise $75,000 independently to build a YMCA for African Americans. Eventually 24 YMCAs and two YWCAs were built.
In 1911, Rosenwald met Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, whose autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” had moved him. After visiting Tuskegee with family and friends, including Rabbi Hirsch, Rosenwald agreed to join its board. At Washington’s request in 1912, Rosenwald agreed to assist six rural Alabama communities that were already raising funds to build schoolhouses by giving $300 to each community that contributed $300 in funds, land, labor and/or materials.
Nearly 5,000 Rosenwald Schools were built across 15 states between 1913 and 1932. Nearly 900 highly talented people received Rosenwald Fund Fellowships to advance their careers; two-thirds were African American. They included singer Marian Anderson; author James Baldwin; diplomat Ralph Bunche; historian John Hope Franklin and psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark.
The Rosenwald Fund supported early NAACP legal cases that eventually led to the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka case. It supported historically black colleges and universities, including Howard, Tuskegee, Fisk and Morehouse.
Rosenwald also contributed to many Jewish causes. He was the largest single donor to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s 1917 campaign to help European victims of pogroms and other violence during World War I, traveling throughout the country encouraging others to donate. In 1929, true to form, he pledged $500,000 to the Hebrew Union College endowment fund contingent upon $4,000,000 being raised in six months.
The challenge was met.
Rosenwald did not seek acclaim, nor did he believe in perpetual endowments, preferring to “give while you live.” The Rosenwald Fund was terminated 16 years after his death. He donated $60 million, both personally and through the fund, the equivalent of more than
$1 billion today.
In late 2016, in partnership with the National Parks and Conservation Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a diverse group of committed volunteers and I launched the Campaign to establish a Julius Rosenwald & Rosenwald Schools National Historical Park. The park will consist of a visitor center in Chicago and a small number of existing Rosenwald Schools selected by the National Park Service.
This story deserves to be told in the National Park System, which preserves the uniquely American story — the good, the bad and the ugly. This is a truly uplifting story, and the park will be the first to honor a Jewish American.
Rosenwald was dedicated to achieving “a universal acceptance that it is the individual and not the race that counts.” In these troubling times, let us dedicate ourselves to creating the national park and to embracing Rosenwald’s legacy by helping individuals obtain education and other opportunities for that better life.
Dorothy A. Canter is president of the Rosenwald Park Campaign. She served on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association and is a member of the board of the Shenandoah National Park Trust. She lives in Bethesda.