Julius Rosenwald is well known as the 20th-century American businessman who co-founded what we now call Sears. But a new documentary by Aviva Kempner explores Rosenwald's lesser-known role as a Jewish philanthropist who brought education to thousands of African-American children at a time when most had no schools to attend, reports the Root. "It's a wonderful story of cooperation between this philanthropist who did not have to care about black people, but who did, and who expended his considerable wealth in ensuring that they got their fair shake in America," civil rights leader Julian Bond explains in Rosenwald, out next month. It tells of Rosenwald's rise from the son of a peddler to a clothing manufacturing apprentice to CEO of the largest US retailer, Sears, Roebuck & Co., in 1908, reports the Times of Israel. It was around that time he began to see similarities between the treatment of blacks in America and pogroms against European Jews.
When his rabbi became an NAACP leader, Rosenwald sponsored meetings. Soon after, he donated $25,000 to Alabama's Tuskegee University, led by Booker T. Washington, whose writings on racial equality and education had piqued his interest. Washington suggested the money go toward building six schools for black children, but Rosenwald contributed just a third of the funds and pushed the black and white communities to raise the rest. He went on to give $62 million to various causes, including the Rosenwald Fund, which created 5,300 schools in the South, attended by prominent African-Americans like Maya Angelou, George Wolfe, and Eugene Robinson. It "was the single-most important funding agency for African-American culture in the 20th century," poet Rita Dove says. More than 80 years after his death, Rosenwald still inspires. "Not all of us can be Julius Rosenwald," says Kempner, but "we can all do something." (More Jewish Americans stories.)