Aviva Kempner, the director of the acclaimed documentaries about baseball star Hank Greenberg and television pioneer Gertrude Berg, has a new film about early 20th century Chicago businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. Like the prior films, this one is filled with meticulously curated archival footage, illuminating historical insights, and thoughtful comments from experts and family members. And as in the earlier films, Kempner has found a fascinating story. Julius Rosenwald is little discussed now, in part because at his direction his charitable foundation was closed down after his death and in part because some of his initiatives to build schools for black children in the South were wrongly considered a perpetuation of the despicable “separate but equal” policy. This film shows what a significant, even definitive impact Rosenwald had in the era leading up to the Civil Rights movement. And an understated final revelation shows how far ahead of his time he really was.
When Jewish immigrants came to the United States from Eastern Europe — think of Tevye and his family at the end of “Fiddler on the Roof” — many of them became peddlers, or traveling salesmen. They didn’t even have to know English. They just had to be willing to trudge from farm to farm and town to town with a suitcase of goods. One of the highlights of the film is the compilation of depictions of these salesmen in popular culture, including an episode of “Rawhide” with Clint Eastwood trying to use Yiddish(!).
Rosenwald’s father was a traveling salesman who settled in Springfield, Illinois, where he knew Senator and then President Abraham Lincoln. Rosenwald and his brother followed their father into retail and later teamed up with Sears and Roebuck. Sears was a great salesman but a poor businessman, but Rosenwald developed the business practices, efficiencies, reliability, and use of new technologies to make the company into the biggest retailer and one of the biggest companies in the United States. His idea was that the then-new Sears catalog was a way to “drop a peddler in the mailbox” of Americans who were too far from the cities to shop in the stores. The catalog was aspirational — you could see what was possible. Congressman John Lewis appears in the film, explaining that he first knew he wanted an education when he saw in the Sears catalogue what educated people with jobs could buy.
When they needed more capital, Sears had one of the country’s first public offerings of stock. Rosenwald became very wealthy.
He was very influenced by his rabbi, Emil Hirsch, who taught him of the importance of tikkun olem — that it is the obligation of each of us to “heal the world.” And Rosenwald drew a direct parallel between the pogroms that Jews were experiencing in Europe and the racist assaults on blacks in the American South. In Hebrew the word for “charity” also means “justice.” And he was influenced by Booker T. Washington’s passion for education and empowerment. Washington brought Rosenwald to the Tuskegee Institute, where he was deeply moved by the self-reliance of the student body and the spirituals sung by the school choir.
With the same vision and focus on efficiency and responsibility he brought to his company, Rosenwald developed an ambitious program to build schools for black children in the South. The communities themselves had to raise part of the money and they had to build the schools themselves, similar to the approach of Habitat for Humanity in building homes. This meant that the communities were vitally involved and committed to the schools. With over 5300 schools giving black children the best educational opportunity they had ever had, the schools taught a generation who would grow up and provide the foundation for the Civil Rights movement. He also made grants to artists and scientists, including Marian Anderson, who used hers to study singing, and Dr. Charles Drew, whose innovation in blood transfusions has saved innumerable lives. He even gave a few grants to white southerners — Kempner shows us an application filled out by Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, better known as Woody.
And, as a title card informs us at the end, he contributed a third of the costs for the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit that made his schools near-obsolete. That is vision.
Kempner’s film shows the difference one person can make by telling Rosenwald’s story, a critical history lesson and a welcome reminder of our own tikkun olem obligations.
Parents should know that this film includes discussion and depiction of bigotry, including lynching.
Family discussion: Who is most like Rosenwald today? What can you do to heal the world?
If you like this, try: Kempner’s other documentaries