Sears president to build schools for southern black children

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Rosenwald Classroom

Chicago, Illinois, June 10, 1917: ”It’s easier to make a million dollars than to find a good way to spend it,” says Julius Rosenwald, who is always searching for that “good way.” Rosenwald, the president of Sears & Roebuck, multi-millionaire businessman, and fervent philanthropist, announced the creation of The Rosenwald Fund, here, today, that will help build several thousand schools for black children throughout the South.

Rosenwald teamed, originally, with Booker T. Washington, the first president of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, then with Washington’s successor, Dr. Robert Moton, to help solve the educational plight of tens of thousands of black children all across the 13 southern states.

According to Rosenwald, “The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution that they have suffered and still suffer.”

Rosenwald emphasizes that this multi-million dollar fund is specifically designed “for the well-being of mankind.” Also, unlike similar philanthropic funds, which are designed to fund themselves in perpetuity, The Rosenwald Fund will use all its funds for philanthropic purposes only–not simply to fund ongoing bureaucracies.

Julius Rosenwald

Julius Rosenwald

Paul Sachs, a close friend of Rosenwald’s and one of two senior partners in the New York financial firm Goldman-Sachs, introduced Rosenwald to Booker T. Washington in 1910. Sachs and Rosenwald had spent the past couple of years prior to the Washington introduction discussing America’s social problems, and in particular, the plight of black Americans in the South. Both men agreed that part of that plight was blacks having no real access to education.

By 1912, Rosenwald and Washington had become so close that Rosenwald served on the Board of Directors of the Tuskegee Institute. He also endowed the institute with tens of thousands of dollars so that Washington could spend less time fund raising and more time managing the Institute. During this time, Rosenwald had the germ of The Rosenwald Fund idea. He provided funds for the construction of six small schools in rural Alabama, which opened in 1913 and 1914, and were overseen by Tuskegee. By early spring, this year, they were considered a resounding success. The Rosenwald Fund is designed to expand these initial school successes into as many black communities as possible throughout the South in the coming years.


5,357, so called, “Rosenwald Schools” were built between 1917 and 1932, along with teacher’s homes near the schools and school work shops. Rosenwald was always entrepreneurial in his thinking. He did not believe in total gifts. He felt the black communities should have a financial stake in each of these schools, so he requested matching funds to build the schools. Black communities throughout the South matched him dollar for dollar. A Rosenwald School in a black community was a source of hope and pride, back then, in communities denied access to meaningful public education.

Julius Rosenwald

Julius Rosenwald (left)

In today’s dollars, a total of some $200 million was raised and donated for this project. One third of all black children in the South in 883 counties from Texas to Maryland at one time were enrolled in Rosenwald Schools.

Rosenwald’s fund management philosophy was all the money for the project and virtually nothing for the bureaucracy. The Rosenwald Fund was completely spent by 1948.

Of course, over the next two decades, school integration swept the United States. The need for Rosenwald Schools was eroded by the ever changing course of history . As difficult as the process was, America was maturing racially.

Julius Rosenwald died in 1932. He was 69.

But, for their moment in time, the Rosenwald Schools were an important statement. They provided tangible proof that US citizens— armed with their own funds, their own understanding of America’s promise, and just plain common sense—can work together to try to solve seemingly intractable problems. So, it is important that those involved with this Rosenwald educational effort should be remembered forever in Southern Memories.

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