The Little Known Story Of How A Jewish Sears Exec. Helped His African-American Neighbors


Director and producer Aviva Kempner didn’t realize how politically relevant her documentary “Rosenwald” would be when she began the project 10 years ago.

The film tells the little-known story of former Sears chairman Julius Rosenwald, who was born to Jewish German clothiers in Springfield, Ill. In 1862, Rosenwald joined the original founders of Sears & Roebuck, growing within the ranks of the company. But most of the film focuses on the chairman’s humanitarian interests and philanthropy, especially within the African-American community in the early 20th century.

Kempner first learned of Rosenwald’s story from a talk given by civil rights movement leader, Julian Bond, and Rabbi David Saperstein at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.

“I thought, ‘oh my God, I can’t believe that this Jewish philanthropist had so much to do with working with the black community,’” she said in an interview with Fresh Ink for Teens. “To build schools and make a difference in terms of education and housing, that really spoke to me.”

One of Rosenwald’s first major philanthropic moves was joining the board of Tuskegee University with Dr. Booker T. Washington, where he donated $3,000 to the building of the university. But perhaps Rosenwald’s biggest and most important accomplishment was his creation of the Rosenwald schools, some five thousand 5,000 school houses built in the early 20th century for African-American children in the South.

Poet Maya Angelou and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) are among the alumni of the constellation of schools.

“It was a Rosenwald school,” Lewis said in an interview conducted by Kempner. “It was supported by the community, it was the only school we had.”

Angelou reminisced about her experience attending a Rosenwald school as well. “I went downtown sometimes, and I saw the white school, which was four times larger, and bricks and all that,” she explained in the film. “But I don’t remember envying that. I thought my school was grand. It was the Lafayette County training school, so there.”

As with most of his charity work, Rosenwald did not give the full amount needed for construction. Instead, he would only give a portion, forcing the government or white community to donate to the African-American community.

The beginning of the film, however, draws parallels between the Ku Klux Klan and pogroms in Eastern Europe through interview clips with Angelou, Lewis and some of Rosenwald’s family.

Rosenwald schools often had to be built one or more times before they were left alone by the KKK, which sometimes burnt them down.

“Whenever ‘the boys,’ as they were euphemistically called, the Klan, would ride into the black area, all black men had to hide,” Maya Angelou said. “And I’m sure there’s the exact same universal sense of fear and terror in Russia when the pogroms were rife in the shtetls, when people knew ‘Uh oh, here they come, the Cossacks are coming.’”

Jews were pushed into secluded shtetls, making them an easy target, which was similar to what the Jim Crow laws did to African Americans in the South.

Many African Americans interviewed in the documentary who went on to have successful careers, credited much of their accomplishments to their education from Rosenwald schools.

Today, Julius Rosenwald’s story is not known by many because instead of leaving behind a foundation in his name with money, he wanted all his money to be used before he died, which was right before the beginning of World War II.

Now, Kempner has been working on making the film into a DVD, which has just been made available after the film’s initial release two years ago. She has also been touring several colleges to screen the film for students. She says people usually react to the film “coming out in tears.”

She says she hopes to go to many more colleges to screen the film.

“I think people, especially in this time, people want to see the great Jewish African-American partnership,” she said. “It’s just a really inspiring film, and I think it’s something we need now.”

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