Without the philanthropy of Julius Rosenwald in the Jim Crow South, “We would have had a different America,” says one of the talking heads in Aviva Kempner’s informative documentary, Rosenwald. By the end of the movie, that’s very easy to believe.
Rosenwald’s father came to the U.S. from Germany in 1821 with $20 in his pocket. He became an itinerant peddler in the Northeast, going door-to-door with his wares. Born in 1862, Julius followed in his father’s retail steps. And he was in the right time and place (as well as having the business acumen) to get on the ground floor of a little Chicago company called Sears, Roebuck and Co., where he eventually become CEO.
The documentary by Kempner (who also made the enjoyable The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg) reminds us of the 20th-century preeminence of Sears and its catalogues. The company sold livestock, every kind of carriage and entire pre-fab houses. The movie’s story, though, is not about the wealth Rosenwald earned, but how he shared it.
Among other things, he created the Rosenwald Fund, which sought out and bankrolled promising African-American artists — unknown then, but household names now, such as Jacob Lawrence, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. (The Fund also extended to some Southern white artists, including Woody Guthrie.)
But it was in education that Rosenwald made his true impact, following cultivation by Booker T. Washington, who invited him to Alabama to tour his own Tuskegee Institute. Here, Rosenwald saw first-hand the vital need of safe places for black children to study.
The movie is at its strongest in its central section, documenting the creation of more than 5,300 “Rosenwald Schools” across the South — modest but sturdy, light-filled structures staffed by teachers who actually had some education themselves. “This is revolutionary, this is path-breaking,” says the late Julian Bond on-camera. Among other luminaries whose lives were lifted by these schools, and are featured in the film, were Rep. John Lewis, Maya Angelou, New York theater director George C. Wolfe, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson and more. They make the case that, without Julius Rosenwald’s generosity, their lives would have been very different, and the United States might not yet have elected our first African-American president.
If the movie has a drawback, it’s this: We see what Rosenwald did, but never quite get a sense of who he was. “If he was here, I would ask him what was his real interest that made him do this for the African-American kids,” a Southern nurse interviewed on-camera says. Julian Bond describes Rosenwald as someone “who did not have to care about black people, but did.” The movie suggests that the philanthropist made the connection between anti-Semitic pogroms in Europe and the terrible racial relations of the South. Having grown up directly opposite the Illinois home of Abraham Lincoln’s family also seems to have cemented that link.
Maybe the “why” of Rosenwald’s philanthropy is irrelevant. In essence, he was honoring the Jewish imperative of taking righteous action. Perhaps we should just be as grateful as we are moved by his largesse.
At times, the movie can feel a little spinachy in its list of Rosenwald’s public do-gooding. It’s a movie more good-for-you than can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it. And in its last minutes, with sidebars about Marian Anderson and Eleanor Roosevelt, director Kempner seems to be trying to cram in as much additional footage and anecdotes as she can, whether or not they fit comfortably into the overall profile of Rosenwald. To its credit, though, the movie moves at a clip. And — at least in my case — it introduces us to an American hero many of us may have never heard of.
Rosenwald. A documentary directed by Aviva Kempner. Unrated. 100 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. Director Kempner will be in-person for Q&A’s following the 4:15 and 7 p.m. shows on Sept. 18.