Julius Rosenwald

At the beginning of the 20th century, Julius Rosenwald was as influential in American business as Bill Gates (Microsoft), Michael Dell (Dell Computers) and Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) are today. Rosenwald co-founded the University of Chicago and helped to marshal war-time industries that turned the tide of the first World War. He also formed an influential partnership with a struggling-but-gifted salesman named Richard Sears, co-owner of the catalogue company Sears & Roebuck. After Rosenwald bought out Roebuck, he applied his insight regarding systems and process management to the delivery side of the business. By implementing a promise to deliver catalogue goods to any location in the United States, no matter how remote, he popularized the idea of direct-to-consumer, mail-order sales. The Sears catalogue company became an empire, and business moguls like Henry Ford were soon calling on Rosenwald for advice.

By the end of his life, however, Rosenwald’s fortune was depleted and, in the decades since, his name has been largely forgotten. What happened?

Over four million dollars went into more than 5,000 small, wooden schoolhouses throughout the south – schools where a generation of African-Americans, limited by Jim Crow laws and social holdovers from slavery times, received an education. Rosenwald’s talent for organization was used in the architectural designs for the schools, and in structuring the Rosenwald Fund – the most ambitious self-help program that African-Americans had ever experienced to that day (and possibly since).

In 1911, Rosenwald read Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up from Slavery. Rosenwald was a lifelong Republican who believed in the power of free enterprise and smaller government. He was also a Jew, sensitive to the hardships of prejudice and social injustice. In an effort to help others who faced the same trials he had faced, Rosenwald formed a partnership with Washington, with the goal of helping African-Americans to help themselves. It is said that Rosenwald could be a hard man to know – that he was often impatient, overbearing and singularly focused – but, luckily, Rosenwald and Washington were focused on the same thing. Even after his death, Rosenwald continued to finance schools and historically-black universities that would produce the scholars and teachers of the Civil Rights era. Because he held the now-quaint notion that wealth should not perpetuate through successive generations of a single family, he had arranged for his fortune to be dispersed among many families.

Another reason that Rosenwald’s name has faded into obscurity is that he did not want any monuments to his efforts. There are no schools, libraries or public statues commemorating his role in the lives of so many Americans. Nevertheless, he is one of the great unsung heroes of the 20th century. His influence on the Civil Rights era is unquestionable, and he remains an indirect influence on children today. To honor those children who sought an education in the 1930s and 40s, we must honor Julius Rosenwald, who believed that his contribution to those schools was the greatest thing he had done with his life.

Copyright © 2006 MC3/ thelongblackline.com
All RIGHTS RESERVED. All trademarks mentioned herein belong to their respective owners.