New book details famous Chicagoan Julius Rosenwald’s dedication to tzedakah

Delve into Rosenwald's school project with Booker T. Washington

booksrosenwald image
Frank Brinkley and Charles Brinkley Sr.--educators, brothers, Rosenwald School former students.

Julius Rosenwald rose to fame as president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, but he left an even deeper mark on this world through his legacy of tzedakah . That is why JUF's highest honor, the Julius Rosenwald Memorial Award, is named for him. 

In his new book, A Better Life for Their Children (University of Georgia Press), Andrew Feiler provides a stunning photographic record of the Rosenwald schools project, the innovative effort Rosenwald undertook with Booker T. Washington, that built 4,977 schools for Black children in the South between 1912 and 1932. 

Before the Great Migration, about 90 percent of Black Americans lived in the Jim Crow South where they were kept, through violence and the threat of violence, from gaining access to education, jobs, medical care, and the ballot box. In many rural areas, there were no schools for Black children.

Born to German Jewish refugees in Springfield, Ill. in 1862, Rosenwald viewed the United States as a "safe haven from antisemitism," according to Feiler. His parents had fled religious persecution in Germany, and education opened doors for Rosenwald's success. Motivated by his upbringing and by the values of tikkun olam prominent in his reform synagogue, Chicago Sinai, Rosenwald pursued philanthropy to tackle the mistreatment of African Americans. As he put it, "I do not see how America can go ahead if part of its people are left behind."

Born a slave in 1856, Washington became an educator and author, and helped found, and then led, the Tuskegee Institute from 1881 until his death in 1915. After meeting in 1911, Rosenwald and Washington quickly developed a friendship motivated by what Feiler calls their "shared activism." 

Their relationship is one of the earliest examples of Jews and Blacks working for civil rights together. "Rosenwald and Washington reached across divides of race, religion, and region," as the late Congressman John Lewis explains in the book's foreword. "Their partnership demonstrates that concerted action can make America better." Lewis, the civil rights icon who passed away in 2020, attended a Rosenwald school as a child in rural Alabama.

As Feiler documents, the reach of these schools is staggering. In the 1930s, about 30 percent of Black children in the South attended a Rosenwald school. And these schools changed lives. 

According to a 2011 Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago study, Blacks in the South "experienced no relative progress" between 1880 and 1910. But the study found that "for [Black] cohorts born during a relatively short period between the World Wars, the Southern racial education gap improved dramatically." The study credits Rosenwald schools for that achievement.

Put simply, these schools fueled the growth of a Black middle class, educating future tradesmen, clergy, educators, writers, and other white-collar professionals. They also educated children who became, as Feiler says, "the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement"--such as Medgar Evers.

Rosenwald devised a truly innovative system of public-private partnerships to fund school construction. He contributed seed money and required the local African American community to contribute, too. Cash-poor African Americans eager to educate their children held bake sales, made and sold quilts, and sometimes built these schools with their own hands. White school boards also had to agree to maintain the buildings, typically one or two room schoolhouses, and to pay teachers. This was done, as Feiler says, "to foster Black/white dialogue, which its founders hoped would lead to progress in other areas." 

Feiler's book, along with a traveling exhibition of his Rosenwald photographs that he hopes to bring to Chicago, are helping to bring this hidden history to light so that we can relearn what Rosenwald and Washington understood all too well, namely that, as Lewis says in the book's foreword, "education is the cornerstone of democracy. Education gives us the skills and the know-how to build a better world."

Amy Shriberg, Ph.D., is a freelance writer and works in the Israel Experience, Community Outreach, and Engagement Division of JUF.

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