Most of you have probably never heard of Julius Rosenwald. Who was he, and why was he so significant to the advancement of African Americans in the US? Read on.
JR was born on August 12, 1862 in Springfield, IL. His parents were German immigrants who owned a small clothing business. The family lived near and was acquainted with Abraham Lincoln.
At the age of 16, JR’s parents sent him to NY to apprentice with his mother’s relatives who were also in the clothing business. JR received no more formal education, but he became an extremely successful businessman. While in NY he made the acquaintance of Henry Goldman, co-founder of the investment firm, Goldman, Sachs, who would become a key player in his later endeavors.
In 1890 he married Augusta Nusbaum, the daughter of a very successful competing clothier. Soon after, he moved his business to Chicago because he wanted to be closer to his clientele, which was located primarily in rural areas. Also, he developed the idea of selling men’s clothing in standardized sizes, which increased the efficiency of his operation considerably.
JR’s big opportunity came in 1893. At the time, Sears & Roebuck, had been primarily a watch manufacturer, however, its owners, Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck were beginning to diversify. As it happened, JR’s company was their primary supplier of men’s clothing. S & R got overextended during the Panic of 1893 and ran up a substantial debt to JR, which they couldn’t pay. One thing led to another, and soon JR became half owner of S & R for an investment of less than $1 million.
JR’s forte was management. Under his direction, S & R flourished. It diversified into virtually every type of product, including dry goods, consumer durable goods, drugs, hardware, and furniture. Whatever a rural household needed S & R could provide. He developed the famous S & R Catalogue, which became the retail customer’s bible. The catalogue enabled a customer in a remote location to order practically any product, and after a short time it would be delivered. This type of service was extremely valuable. In reality, it was a primitive version of shopping online. Remember, at that time, America was largely a rural country comprised of farms and small towns. Few people owned cars. There were no highways. One could not simply hop into the family car and go to the mall to shop. Thus, S & R became very profitable and grew into a retail colossus. As an aside, JR realized his chief competitor, Montgomery Ward, was also distributing a catalogue to the same clientele. JR came up with the idea of making his catalogue smaller so a customer who had both of them would likely stack his on top on the table.
In the early 1900s JR became interested in the plight of African Americans. He realized there was a severe lack of quality education available to them, especially in the South. He was one of the first to recognize what we all know today to be true. That is, a good education was the key ingredient in enabling poor people to break the cycle of poverty. Under the prevailing educational doctrine of “separate, but equal” African Americans were being saddled with inadequate schools, lack of materials, such as books, and insufficient and/or unqualified teachers. Although their education was indeed “separate,” it was far from “equal.” Basically, they had very little chance to succeed virtually guaranteeing a continuation of the cycle of poverty. In addition, there were no funds available to remedy the situation.
Improving the quality of education became JR’s primary mission. In cooperation with prominent black educators, such as Booker T. Washington and William Baldwin over the rest of his life he arranged funding for the construction of over 5,000 schools in poor black areas throughout the South. They became known as “Rosenwald Schools.” The aforementioned Henry Goldman assisted him in financing.
JR’s methodology was brilliant. He set up a fund, the Rosenwald Fund, to administer the program. JR would agree to donate funds provided that the community matched it. This gave the community a stake in the success of the project. In this manner, the Fund contributed matching funds in excess of $4 million for schools. Furthermore, the Fund donated millions to build and support museums, housing developments, charities and universities.
Perhaps, the Fund’s crowning achievement was the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, which was completed in 1929. Housing segregation was prevalent in the North at the time. Therefore, as African Americans fled the South to seek better opportunities in the North, a severe housing shortage developed. The purpose of this complex was to accommodate these working class minorities. It was one of the first complexes to combine residential and commercial properties. The Fund also supported the construction of YMCAs for minorities, some of which are still active today.
Through his fund JR had a substantial impact on the lives of thousands of African Americans. It is impossible to quantify the effect precisely, because it is difficult to determine the precise value of a first-rate education. However, there is general agreement that it was a crucial component of their economic and social advancement from one generation to the next. Suffice to say, thousands of middle class African Americans and their descendants owe their success, at least in part, to the opportunities presented to them by a Rosenwald School.
JR died on January 6, 1932. Despite his largesse, he left an estate valued at more than $80 million, which was equivalent to $1.4 billion in today’s dollars.