Repairing the world
Rosenwald film tells story of Springfield-born philanthropist
Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) helped turn Sears, Roebuck and Co. from a middling mail order firm into a retail megalith. According to Wikipedia, between 1895 and 1907, annual sales of the company climbed “from $750,000 to upwards of $50 million” under his guidance. He used the resulting fortune to help build more than 5,000 schools in African-American communities throughout the pre-civil rights era South and eventually began a philanthropic fund which helped foster such talents as Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. He also founded Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Given all this, it seems like Rosenwald would be a household name.
“I can’t tell you how many people see the film and say, how come I’ve never heard of this man?” said Aviva Kempner, director of the documentary Rosenwald, which will be shown in Springfield this week, in a special joint presentation by the African-American History Museum and the Springfield Jewish Federation. “A lot of it has to do with his modesty – he didn’t want his name on things.”
According to the film, a large part of Rosenwald’s motivation for giving was based in his devotion to the essential Jewish principle of “tikkun olam” (Hebrew for “repair the world”), which requires the faithful to share their wealth with the less fortunate. Rosenwald also credited his upbringing in Springfield with his ethical outlook. His family home was across the street from the Lincolns’ and during his days as a lawyer in Springfield, Honest Abe himself had bought suits in his father’s store. Young Julius was too young to have encountered Lincoln personally but did sell programs at his memorial service. “Who could have known that years later he’d be involved in building schools where his picture would hang next to Lincoln’s?” said Kempner. “Not everyone can give away $62 million – about one billion today – but there’s a Rosenwald in all of us. The most important thing about the film is to inspire giving.”
One unique aspect of Rosenwald’s philanthropy was his insistence that any communities where he helped build schools had to come up with matching funds to complete the projects. Rosenwald would provide one-third of the required cost with the understanding that the black community would provide an additional third, with the final portion raised from the surrounding white communities. This was a way of encouraging a sense of ownership. At one point, Rosenwald offered to provide pre-fab kit homes from the Sears catalog to offset building costs, but this idea was blocked by his school-building partner, Booker T. Washington, who insisted on the importance of the schools being designed and built by community members, creating a sense of “sweat equity.” In the end, Rosenwald and Washington created a virtual alternative school system in the South and some of the film’s most moving passages are the emotional testimonials of many future luminaries (including Julian Bond, Angelou and U.S. Representative John Lewis) who owed their educations to the Rosenwald schools.
Ironically for such an influential educator, Rosenwald had left his schooling in Springfield at age 16 to apprentice at his grandfather’s business in Chicago, which led to his fortune and eventual philanthropy. “He was not a formally educated man, and he was self-conscious about it,” Kempner said. “Julius was very rich and very honorable.” At one point in the film, Rosenwald is shown giving a speech in which he says in part: “Don’t be fooled into believing that just because a man is rich that he is necessarily a smart man. There is ample proof to the contrary,” a line that Kempner says always gets a knowing laugh from audiences, who automatically make a distinctly 21st century association with the words of a man who passed away in the 1930s.
“The film has been shown hundreds of places and I’ve attended a lot of screenings but this is the one place I wish they had asked me to come,” Kempner said. “Springfield has a certain place in my heart.”
Rosenwald will be shown Saturday, July 15, at 4 p.m. Union Baptist Church, 1405 E. Monroe.