'Rosenwald': How a philanthropist aided black education in Jim Crow South

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Sears founder Julius Rosenwald (left) with Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute in 1915. A new documentary looks at the philanthropist's efforts in the Jim Crow South. (Photo courtesy of University of Chicago Library)

A straight-ahead documentary tribute, Rosenwald - about Julius Rosenwald, the hugely generous philanthropist and president of Sears - screened last month at the annual meeting of the NAACP here in Philadelphia. Why would the life of a son of Jewish immigrants from Germany be of special interest to African Americans?

Because Rosenwald - who never finished high school, who rose from peddling clothing by foot and cart to running the largest retailer in the country - teamed with black communities in the Jim Crow-era South of the early 20th century to build more than 5,000 schools. He helped fund YMCAs for black communities. He partnered with Booker T. Washington to expand the Tuskegee Institute and construct homes for African Americans.

Civil rights leader Julian Bond, who passed away last week, speaks of Rosenwald's generosity and sense of purpose in the film. U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.) talks of the obstacles blacks faced in the days of so-called separate-but-equal schooling in the South. Poets Maya Angelou and Rita Dove address Rosenwald's largesse. Historians, journalists, politicians, and family descendants examine his legacy.

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg) uses archival footage, family photographs, interviews, and clips from films (and even an episode of Rawhide, the old Clint Eastwood TV western), assembling a portrait of this American success story who forged a social and spiritual alliance with black leaders of the time.

Rosenwald's motto was "Give while you live," and the millionaire philanthropist gave away huge sums. (Adjusted for inflation, he'd be a billionaire today.) He saw the connection between the treatment of African Americans in the South and across America and the systemic anti-Semitism his family had faced back in Germany, and he wanted to do something about it.

And he did.

Rosenwald tells the remarkable story of a remarkable man.


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Rosenwald

Directed by Aviva Kempner. With Eugene Robinson, Stephanie Deutsch, Richard J. Powell, Peter Ascoli, Julian Bond.

Running time: 1 hours, 40 minutes.

Parent's guide: Unrated ().