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Julius Rosenwald

Julius Rosenwald was born in 1862 as the son of German Jewish immigrants. His father, Samuel Rosenwald, arrived in Baltimore in 1854 with twenty dollars in his pocket. He married Augusta Hammerslough in 1857. Because of his wife's family connections, Samuel eventually took up business in the textile industry.

This line of work not only allowed Samuel's son, Julius Rosenwald, to grow up in a middle-class family, but it also planted in him the seeds of enterprise. After leaving high school, Julius Rosenwald entered the business world. He spent years apprenticing with his family members before the pinnacle moment in his career, when his brother-in-law, Aaron Nusbam, proposed that together they buy in as partners of Sears, Roebuck, & Co. Rosenwald agreed, making this the most important and auspicious moment of his career. Rosenwald eventually bought out Nusbaum’s partnership, became president of the company in 1910, and by 1929, his fortune had amassed to $200 million. At the time of his publication of Rosenwald’s biography in 2005, author––and grandson of Julius Rosenwald––Peter Ascoli estimated the sum’s contemporary equivalent to be around $2 billion.1 Given his state of financial ease, Rosenwald stepped down from the company’s presidency in 1924 (though he stayed on as chairman) to focus his efforts on philanthropy.2

All accounts of Rosenwald’s life highlight his belief that money brought responsibility. Consequently, a considerable percentage of Rosenwald’s income was dedicated to philanthropy. In her biography of Rosenwald, Hasia R. Diner (Yale Professor of History) emphasizes that his philanthropic philosophy stemmed from his Jewish identity: “His philanthropic work reflected his deep belief in America and his desire to make it a fairer, more inclusive and humane place that would offer safe haven for Jews.”3 Not only did he donate directly to suffering Jewish populations, such as the Jewish pogroms of Europe, but to groups whose marginalization mirrored that of the Jewish community. This line of thinking resulted in strong ties to the African American population of the early twentieth century. One of his most noted contributions was fostered by his partnership with Booker T. Washington. Together, they conceptualized and funded over 5,000 schools in the rural South for African American youth to have access to education, thereby narrowing the racial gap in educational achievement in the Jim Crow South. In addition, Rosenwald funded the Chicago Commission on Race Relations (a testament to his dedication to his home city), established twenty-four YMCAS and two YWCAs to serve African American populations who were denied the right to enter such establishments under Jim Crow segregation. The Rosenwald Fellowships, however, are a lesser-known effort of the Fund. Between 1928 to 1948, the Fund offered fellowships to hundreds of individuals, including Marian Anderson, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Catlett, John Hope Franklin, James Baldwin, Richmond Barthé, Katherine Dunham, Aaron Douglas, Charles S. Johnson, and many more.

Rosenwald died in 1932, and the Fund was disassembled in 1948. The fund’s cessation testifies to Rosenwald’s philanthropic philosophy that one must “give while you live.” He believed that each generation develops new needs that differ from previous generations, and did not wish to impose outdated ideas of giving on future generations.4 After the fund ended, Rosenwald’s name disappeared from public consciousness. Unlike most major philanthropists, he requested that his name not be engraved on buildings, adamantly refusing offers to leave his mark on the world in this way. For Rosenwald, financial gifts were a responsibility, and he was simply one among many “in the ranks” of “citizens and social agents” to make the world a better place.5 This philosophy is likely why we have heard so little––or not at all––about Rosenwald and about these fellowships, an enigma that this project aims to correct.

Despite his outstanding efforts to aid and work with marginalized populations, Rosenwald's philanthropy is open to critique. In the conclusion of her biography, Hasia Diner notes that Rosenwald “accepted the reality of segregation […] Rosenwald’s initiatives embodied the idea of separate but equal.”6 Rosenwald resolved first to provide assistance to the African American population as a separate community before considering successful steps toward an integrated society. However, racial equality was his ultimate goal.7 It is for these philanthropic efforts related to racial justice that he has been remembered by those whose lives he touched. In his eulogizing comments on Rosenwald’s passing, philosopher Alain Locke called him “the most conspicuous contemporary benefactor of the Negro … [who believed that] the cause and best interests of any and all minorities is really the cause and best interests of the majority.”8

1. Peter Ascoli, Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006) 264.

2. Hasia R. Diner, Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2017) 50-1.

3. Diner, Julius Rosenwald, 54.

4. Ascoli, Julius Rosenwald, 308.

5. Diner, Julius Rosenwald, 58.

6. Diner, Julius Rosenwald, 195.

7. Ascoli, Julius Rosenwald, 397.

8. Locke ctd. Diner, Julius Rosenwald, 147.