Sometimes a film screening can feel like a worship service.

Rosenwald schools film photoJonathan and I shared that experience last evening, at the Old Greenbelt Theater screening of Rosenwald, the new documentary about the legendary (but not all that well known) 19th and 20th Century philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald of Chicago.

If you are an African American of a certain age, you may well know about Rosenwald Schools, either because you attended one yourself, or your mama or daddy did, or someone in your family did, or perhaps even was a teacher in one of the more than 5,300 schools built between 1913 and 1932.

Rosenwald School in Louisiana
A Rosenwald School in Louisiana

Many of us probably know about Carnegie libraries, built all over the country, and we are grateful. But the Rosenwald Schools were not, strictly speaking, for the entire country (although our entire nation benefited from them). Instead, they were to provide education for African American youngsters in Southern States where schools to serve the Black population’s youth, particularly in rural areas, were either non-existent or in such deplorable condition as to be almost, if not truly, useless.

Rosenwald, who rose from being the child of first-generation Jewish German immigrants to become the leader of Sears, Roebuck & Company, seems an unlikely benefactor. However, even a keen businessman, as surely Rosenwald was, can have or develop a social conscience.

Julius Rosenwald
Julius Rosenwald was, according to many, an informal, approachable man, whom many called, simply, JR.

According to the film, Rosenwald was influenced to engage in philanthropy directly engaging the needs of the African American community by several factors. First, he was acutely aware of pogroms against Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe. Second, he read Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington, and connected what he learned about Washington’s struggles, and those of other Blacks, with the anti-Semitism of Europe. He was aided in this by Rabbi Emil Hirsch, the widely acclaimed reform rabbi of Chicago’s Sinai Congregation. Rabbi Hirsch preached widely and continually on the Jewish obligation of tikkun olam, to heal the world, and especially of people with much to do much to promote that healing.

Finally, there is the undeniable influence of Booker T. Washington, who became a friend and mentor. Rosenwald served on the Board of Trustees at Tuskegee Institute and responded favorably to Washington’s request that he build a YMCA for “colored young men.” Rosenwald provided challenge funds to build the first one, in Chicago, and then went on to provide the impetus and initial funding for 26 others around the nation.

Booker T Washington
Booker T. Washington

Then came the schools–first a half-dozen near Tuskegee and then more and then more until the South, especially the rural south, was dotted with them. If you want to see the schools in your part of the South, click here for a link to an online database.

The number of schools is undeniably impressive, but so is the list of African American leaders and others who were students in them. Add to that list the names of eminent African American artists–musicians, writers, painters and sculptors–who received important, sometimes life-saving, grants from the Rosenwald Fund. Two well-known African Americans, both students at the school in their area–Julian Bond and Maya Angelou–speaking extensively on film on what Rosenwald did.

Rosenwald Schools map
Map showing 5,295 schools completed by July 1, 1931

Rosenwald did more than any other white man in the first 40 years of the 20th Century to help the African American community get itself ready to topple Jim Crow and move assertively forward to press the case for full civil rights. Yes, he had more money than almost everyone else, and he gave it generously.

But he did something else. He only gave what we would call challenge grants. He promised to pay one-third of the cost of building a school if the local African American community came up with a third, and got the white community (often the State Department of Education, as well as local benefactors) to contribute one-third. This empowered the local Black community to come together to build and maintain its own school, which usually became not only the school but also the community center.

In this way, his philanthropy was of the best kind–helping people meet an immediate need as well as helping them build something more, pride in themselves and organization for the future, a better future.

Charleston massacre
Praying outside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston

I urge you to see this film wherever you can (check here for a list of upcoming showings) and watch for it on DVD. The filmmaker, Aviva Kempner, wants to be sure this is seen all over the nation–and certainly in schools and other community venues. She has done a superb job–it is a lively, entertaining, and hugely informative film, bringing together many strands of history from Rosenwald’s youth in Springfield, Illinois all the way to his death in 1932 and the work of the fund beyond. We really see the sweep of his vision.

If you do not come away from your viewing with a desire to go out and do something for civil rights (still imperiled in our nation), or for some other deeply cherished cause to heal the world, then I fear for your sanity, your serenity, your heart, even your soul.

See this film. Be inspired by JR. And do likewise, heal the world in your own way.