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'Rosenwald' Celebrates 'The Greatest Philanthropist You've Never Heard Of'


Julius Rosenwald was one of the most famous men in America, a hugely successful businessman and a very important philanthropist especially when it came to supporting African-Americans in the days of segregation. In Aviva Kempner's new documentary film about him, there's a clip of Rosenwald from a 1929 newsreel.


JULIUS ROSENWALD: Most people are of the opinion that because a man has made a fortune, that his opinions on any subject are valuable. Don't be fooled by believing because a man is rich that he is necessarily smart. There is ample proof to the contrary.

SIEGEL: Julius Rosenwald made a fortune. He turned Sears, Roebuck, the revolutionary catalog marketer, into the Walmart or the Amazon of its day. His wealth was estimated at $400 million.

ROSENWALD: Most large fortunes are made by men of mediocre ability who tumbled into a lucky opportunity and couldn't help but get rich.

SIEGEL: And as Julius Rosenwald made money, he also gave a lot of it away and a lot of it to help African-American education. Aviva Kempner's documentary is called "Rosenwald." Welcome to the program once again.

AVIVA KEMPNER: Wonderful to be here, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, tell us about Julius Rosenwald's roots.

KEMPNER: Well, it's interesting. He was born in Springfield, Ill., which actually was a precursor to where his life would be because the family whom was across the street from Abraham Lincoln. And years later, when he accumulated so much money as the head of Sears, he listened to two things - his rabbi's preaching, Hirsch, about Tikkun olam...

SIEGEL: Emil Hirsch.

KEMPNER: ...Emil Hirsch - a principle in Judaism about repairing the world. But then he had a revelation when he read Booker T. Washington's book "Up From Slavery." And he realized that the Jim Crow South was awful and that he had to do something. So he invited Booker T. to come talk. And Booker T. said to him, you know, I want you to join the Board of Tuskegee. And he agrees to be on the board. And then when he turned 50, he decided to give a lot of money away. The philosophy for it was give while you live. So Booker T. Washington says to him, OK, you're offering me money; what we really need in Alabama are schools for young kids.

SIEGEL: How many did he build ultimately? How many Rosenwald schools were there in the South?

KEMPNER: 5,300-plus.

SIEGEL: And you interviewed people who went to these schools.

KEMPNER: Eugene Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize...

SIEGEL: Columnist for The Washington Post.

KEMPNER: Right. John Lewis, a great civil rights Congressman. Maya Angelou talks about going to the school and a lot of descendants of relatives. You know, I recently showed the film, and afterwards, people stood up and said, I went to that school; it made the difference in my life. One out of 3 young African-Americans in that period - we're talking from the teens up through the '40s - had gone to a Rosenwald school.

SIEGEL: And he gave grants both during his own lifetime and then through the fund that survived him. The recipients - it is an honor roll for African-Americans like you wouldn't believe. W. E .B Du Bois, the historian John Hope Franklin, the Nobel laureate diplomat Ralph Bunche, the poet Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Marian Anderson. It's amazing the people.

KEMPNER: Jacob Lawrence - you go to MoMA right now. Their great Migration series was done under Rosenwald. Gordon Parks took photographs here under a very segregated D.C. The famous one of this chairwoman in front of the American flag - it was a Rosenwald. So it's pretty incredible, and I say it's the greatest philanthropist you've never heard of.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Do you think that's because he was doing his philanthropy at a time of segregation and we find it harder to honor, say, the building of terrific-but-segregated schools throughout the old South - that all that was sort of obliterated by the Civil Rights Movement?

KEMPNER: I think those schools made such a different we don't, you know - it was horrible that it was segregated, but they were so important. No, I think it's because it was so long ago, and he believed in spending down his foundation. Twenty-five years after he died, it would no longer exist. And he didn't like his names on things. So, you know, that made a big difference. As a matter of fact, our opening in Chicago's going to be at the Museum of Science and Industry. Julius Rosenwald built that museum. So he was a very modest man.

SIEGEL: Someone who figures in this documentary and, who I gather, inspired you to do it is the late Julian Bond whom we just lost this past weekend - a great civil rights figure who, at the very end of the documentary, offers us this sort of genealogy of Rosenwald, what he did, what Bond did and what came of it.


JULIAN BOND: You can look at the people who got grants from Julius Rosenwald and say these are the predecessor generation to the civil rights generation that I'm a part of. And I'm a predecessor generation to the Obama generation that resulted in the election of the first black president of the United States.

SIEGEL: Julian Bond inspired you to make this film.

KEMPNER: Twelve years ago this month, I went to hear on Martha's Vineyard at the Hebrew Center Julian Bond talk about blacks and Jews. So I'm thinking I'm going to hear about the civil rights era. Little did I know that there was this story about Julius Rosenwald, the building of the schools, the fund. And the minute I heard it, it was like a light bulb going off. And I said, I have to go to do this film. And we recently showed the film at the convention of the NAACP where he and I talked. And it was so rewarding to come back to an institution that was so important to him. I'm just very sad that now that the film opened up last weekend in New York and around the country, that Julian isn't here to see it.

SIEGEL: You've made other documentaries about great Jewish-Americans - the baseball player Hank Greenberg, the actress Gertrude Berg, now Julius Rosenwald. This is a story about a very special relationship, about a time when American Jews and African-Americans enjoyed a kind of political and social alliance that - it seems a bit antique nowadays sometimes.

KEMPNER: Not to me. I grew up in Detroit. I live in Washington for 40 years. It's always been, for me, the Jewish-black alliance. So for me, it's just an extension of my personal life and my political beliefs. But you know, it doesn't have to just be Jews and blacks. I think the most important thing that we can do right now is not only be concerned for Black Lives Matters, but what can we do about it? And I think this film inspires us about doing things about education and jobs. And of course, not all of us are going to have the millions like Julius Rosenwald did, but there's a Julius Rosenwald in all of us to do something.

SIEGEL: Aviva Kempner's documentary is called "Rosenwald." Aviva, thanks for talking with us.

KEMPNER: Thanks so much, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.