If you never heard of Julius Rosenwald ("JR" to family and friends), then by all means, watch "Rosenwald," a compelling, touching documentary by director Aviva Kempner about the amazing life of a most extraordinary man.
At the times in US history when relations between blacks and Jews were stretched to the breaking point, Rosenwald stands as a model of a man who in the early 1900s did much to build the lives and communities of African-Americans. In "Rosenwald,"JR's life unfolds through photos, film clips, re-enactments and interviews with family members, historians and members of the black community including prominent civil rights leaders, columnists, rabbis, artists and film directors.
Thanks to the interviews, photos, and film clips, "Rosenwald" maintains a dramatic tautness that that draws viewers in and keeps them eager for more. But this tension sags when re-enactments jar viewers with their imitations of real life and detract from the film's seriousness and compelling interest.
JR's story begins as so many others in America: His immigrant parents arrive on the shores of the New World having escaped Europe's pogroms and begin to eke out a hardscrabble life for themselves in Baltimore. His father, Samuel, starts out as a peddler and eventually becomes a merchant in Springfield, Illinois. The family lives across the street from where Abraham Lincoln was raised. Samuel's dedication to Lincoln and all he stood for, as well as the family's proximity to that great man's home, no doubt provided the early grist for JR's later commitment to bettering the lives of the black community.
At age 16, two years before he finished high school, Samuel sent Julius to New York to help his uncles in the clothing manufacturing business. New York gave Julius not only his early business experience, but also a new social network of men destined to become great leaders themselves: Henry Goldman and Paul Sachs of the investment firm Goldman Sachs.
Acting on a business hunch, Rosenwald moved to Chicago with his cousin and brother, and started a successful business manufacturing men's clothing. With a little bit of money under his belt, Rosenwald enacted his financial philosophy: Save one-third, spend another third, and give away the rest.
As luck would have it, the swashbuckling salesman Richard Sears came round looking for men's suits when his expert marketing skills created more demand than he had supplies. Rosenwald's company, Rosenwald and Weil, came to the rescue, and furnished the required suits. It was a slam dunk when Sears showed up again, asking for investors. Rosenwald obliged, using the debt that Sears owed him for the suits as his share of Sears and Roebuck.
JR brought an efficiency-driven management style to the company. Under his leadership, Sears and Roebuck expanded and diversified its product lines. Their new state-of-the-art factory in Chicago processed orders with a 24-hour turnaround, 100 years before Amazon ever did. Sales increased from $750,000 to over $50 million. With the Goldman's help, Julius took the company public, making it the largest retailer in the US.
In 1894, Sear's first mail order catalog arrived in people's mailboxes, negating the need for the traditional door-to-door salesman. Peddling everything from buttons to chicks to homes, it became, as one of the interviewees explains, "the wish book."
For poor blacks, many of the items were dispiritingly well beyond their reach. But for the young John Lewis, who eventually became a US Congressman, the Sears catalog inspired him to get an education so he could actually afford the things in it.
But Rosenwald's story of luck and pluck, hard work, and business acumen is only half the tale, explaining only how Rosenwald accumulated the millions of dollars he eventually used to such life-changing purposes.
Temple Sinai, the synagogue Rosenwald and his family attended, had as its head, Dr. Emil Hirsch, a noted rabbi whose sermons on the importance of "tzedakah" (doing right and just acts such as charity) and "tikkun olam" (healing the world) brought thousands of listeners to his pulpit. Rosenwald had already given large sums money to a variety of different causes, such as building Ys to house African-Americans who came north during the Great Migration, as well as persecuted Jewish Armenians. But the combination of his relationships with both Hirsch and Booker T. Washington, the African-American scholar, author and most prominent leader of the black community from 1890 to 1915, narrowed his giving to projects that focused on lifting blacks out of poverty through education.
Working with Washington, the pair came up with the idea to build schools for poverty-stricken blacks in the rural south, but with a twist. While not the first example of matching funds (that was Ben Franklin in 1751), it was the evocation of the Rosenwald principle: He would donate one-third of the needed money, but one-third had to be raised by the black community, and the final third by the white community.
Viewers hear the results in "Rosenwald"s moving interviews. Built by the people themselves -- who thus had a personal stake in the project -- the schools became community centers with its students as its stars. "A" students were paraded from church to church as paragons of what could be achieved.
Over 5,000 "Rosenwald schools," as they came to be called, were built, providing thousands of poor Southern black children with an education. One of those students was the poet Maya Angelou who, in the film, speaks of her experiences there.
The Rosenwald Fund also offered fellowships to promising young African-American artists, researchers, writers and intellectuals. To read the names of some of the recipients whose careers benefitted from the Rosenwald largesse is to glimpse a Who's Who of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond.
As Maya Angelou wrote in "Still I Rise":
"You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise."
Helped by Julius Rosenwald, she and many other African-Americans did.