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The New ‘Rosenwald’ Documentary Couldn’t Be Timelier

Julius Rosenwald built schools for blacks in the Jim Crow South

When civil rights icon Julian Bond died last month, a moment from my youth popped into my head. Nearly 50 years ago, Bond, then a young, charismatic African-American member of the Georgia State Legislature, spoke to our Massachusetts synagogue in a lily-white Boston suburb. I was barely a teenager, so all I retain from his talk, coming on the heels of major mid-1960s civil rights legislation, was the importance he put on the alliance between blacks (the term at the time) and Jews.

Bond was still talking about that theme more than 30 years later at the Hebrew Center on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. This time,  filmmaker Aviva Kempner was in the audience. Born just after World War II in Berlin, Germany, the child of a Holocaust survivor, she grew up in Detroit, Mich., and knew the high price her city had paid for racial unrest.

Kempner expected to hear Bond speak about the civil rights era. Instead, he focused on a little-known Chicago businessman and philanthropist from the early 20th century named Julius Rosenwald. After Bond described how Rosenwald had built more than 5,000 schools for black students in the Jim Crow South, Kempner knew: Julius Rosenwald would be the subject of her next film.

A Mission to ‘Repair the World’

Twelve years later, after the kind of painstaking research and fundraising that comes with a labor-of-love documentary, Rosenwald has been playing to packed houses on select screens around the country.

“It’s a great antidote to all the depressing race stories of today, a coming together between groups,” Kempner says. Indeed, what may be drawing people to the film is the opportunity to see the fruits of the black/Jewish alliance, a stark contrast to the recent spate of high-profile racially tinged killings and the acknowledgement by President Obama that “this country’s racial history still casts a long shadow upon us.”

At its essence, Rosenwald tells the story of a man who came from humble beginnings to become the driven president of Sears Roebuck, where he made a fortune from the catalog. He never lost sight of the power of his accumulated wealth to transform lives. Rosenwald practiced what his famous Chicago, Ill. rabbi Emil Hirsch preached: Tikkun Olam, meaning, repair the world.

No less than Rep. John Lewis, the late Maya Angelou, poet Rita Dove, and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eugene Robinson were products of Rosenwald schools.

Edgar Stern reportedly said to his wife, 'We could lose some friends over this.' And she replied, 'Well, then we'll see who our friends are.'

Following a Washington, D.C., screening at the Avalon Theater this week, standing alongside Kempner was Rosenwald’s great-grandson David Stern and journalist Cokie Roberts, whose own New Orleans, La., family knew Edith Rosenwald Stern (Rosenwald’s daughter) and her husband, Edgar Stern, both dedicated to the kind of social justice Julius Rosenwald lived.

“One of Edith’s cooks told her there was a wonderful singer at her church,” Roberts recalled. That wonderful singer turned out to be Marian Anderson, who would years later give a concert at Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans, the first in the city black patrons could attend. That was a year after Anderson was barred from singing at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall, leading to her iconic 1939 appearance before the Lincoln Memorial.

“Edith not only invited Marian Anderson to sing at her home, but also have her as the guest of honor, something that was not done in those days in a city like New Orleans,” Roberts said. Concerned, Edgar Stern reportedly said to his wife, “We could lose some friends over this.” And she replied, “Well, then we’ll see who our friends are.”

The Genius of Working Together

Rosenwald built 5,000 schools. He provided a third of the cost and asked blacks and whites to come together to raise the remainder. He used the same strategy to build black YMCAs in Chicago and other cities, creating gathering places and lodging for blacks in cities that had whites-only hotels. Rosenwald provided $25,000 to any YMCA in the country that could raise an additional $75,000. His genius was in getting blacks and whites to work together to raise the funds.

Among those answering Rosenwald’s call was Madam C. J. Walker, who made a fortune developing and selling a line of beauty and hair products for black women. She pledged $1,000 for a black YMCA in her new community of Indianapolis, Ind.

“That was stunning,” says author A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great-grandaughter. “It put her on the map as a philanthropist. Everyone expected white businessmen to contribute, but here was a black woman who decided, ‘I’m going to do something for our boys because it will help our girls.'” Until this documentary, Bundles says, her African-American friends were much more familiar with Julius Rosenwald than her Jewish friends. But with this film, Julius Rosenwald’s name is finally spreading across the land.

Some Things Haven’t Changed

A ripple of laughter went through the Avalon Theater when Rosenwald, shown in the film at a meeting of industrial leaders in Washington nearly a century ago, could easily have been referring to today’s Presidential politics when he said: “Most people are of the opinion that because a man has made a fortune, that his opinions on any subject are valuable. Don’t be fooled by believing because a man is rich, that he is necessarily smart. There is ample proof to the contrary.”

When asked to what he attributed his success, Rosenwald would say: “Most large fortunes are made by mediocre people who stumbled into a lucky opportunity and couldn’t help but get rich.”

As the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, was celebrated this week, the theme of social justice was heard in many synogogues. Reformed Rabbis joined the NAACP on a march earlier this month from Selma to Washington, pushing for equal voting rights, equal access to good education and a reform of the criminal justice system. And Kempner hopes her documentary will be yet another call to action.

“We don’t all have the millions Julius Rosenwald did, but there is a Julius Rosenwald in all of us,” she says. “Just look in your local communities, schools, churches and synagogues to do something. If the citizens start doing something, we can make a difference.”


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