Businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald was instrumental in creating a fund that led to the creation of over 5,000 schools in the Deep South geared towards African-American students. Mr. Rosenwald, who was also a co-owner of The Sears Company, is the subject of a documentary that aired this summer which shared details of both his rise in business and his generosity.
Rosenwald was born on August 12, 1862 in Springfield, Ill. to Jewish immigrant parents from Germany. At the age of 16, Rosenwald was sent to New York to work in a relative’s clothing business and became highly skilled in the industry. In time, Rosenwald married Augusta Nasbaum, a daughter of a competitor.
Rosenwald’s company provided men’s clothing to the company owned by Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck. When Roebuck stepped away from the business, he gave his portion of the business to Sears who then partnered with Aaron Nasbaum, Rosenwald’s brother-in-law. In 1895, Sears sold Roebuck’s share of the business to Nasbaum and Rosenwald. Sears and Rosenwald eventually bought out Nasbaum for a hefty $1.3 million in 1903.
As the company grew, so did Rosenwald’s connection with the business elite. He became close with Goldman Sachs’ Paul J. Sachs, who introduced him to advocates for Black education Booker T. Washington, and William Baldwin. Realizing that the playing field for Blacks wasn’t fair, Rosenwald created the Rosenwald Fund. The fund aided in the creation of 5,000 schools and various other charitable actions.
The Rosenwald Fund schools featured students who went on to become legendary figures. The late Maya Angelou, the late Julian Bond, congressman John Lewis and several others all attended schools erected via Rosenwald’s contributions.
In August 2015, Jewish director Aviva Kempner debuted Rosenwald a documentary focused on Rosenwald’s philanthropy and life story. The film is currently being rolled out slowly across the nation.