On the recommendation of a long-time friend, supporter, and philanthropic advisor, Anita Nager, on August 21 my wife and I went to see Rosenwald. This documentary tells the extraordinary story of Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears Roebuck and Company in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In an era when issues of inequality and racism burn fiercely, nearly a century later, the story remains all to relevant. “JR” as he was known used his considerable fortune to address some of the root causes of poverty and inequality — above all, education. He provided funding for approximately 5,300 schools for African-American children throughout the Southeast. The structure of his giving was as compelling as its sheer magnitude: he contributed one-third of the cost of building new, decent schools, requiring the African-American communities to raise the other two-thirds through their resources and those of the broader community. This fostered a sense of community ownership that cannot but inspire the audience of this documentary.
He employed similar strategies to promote the building of YMCAs across the country, badly needed as places for African-Americans to stay, since white-only YMCAs were closed to them.
There is much more: support for Tuskegee Institute, where he became a trustee; construction of the Michigan Boulevard apartment house complex in Chicago; and more. His impact far outlived him in the foundation he created, and which he instructed should be “spent down” entirely by 1948. The list of major African-American artists (Jacob Lawrence), writers (Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin), dancers (Katharine Dunham), musicians and singers (Marian Anderson) and others includes people who shaped American culture. Julian Bond, John Lewis, Maya Angelou — all gave moving, personal testimony to the powerful impact that “Rosenwald schools” and the foundation had in advancing African-American culture.
Contrary to the practices of late 20th and early 21st century, Rosenwald did not seek to plaster his name on every piece of cultural monument and other real estate. Listen to his interview in the documentary, where he assures us that rich people are no smarter than the rest of us. Consider the scope and scale of his school-building, above all: at one time, as many as one-third of African-American children in the South were being educated in “Rosenwald schools.” To my mind, this is what we should aspire to with impact investing of today.
As a documentary, “Rosenwald” does not rise to the level of high art. There are some positively tacky re-enactment scenes, and the last third of the film slows — though one would scarcely have wanted not to hear from Julian Bond, John Lewis, and Maya Angelou. But the content is so compelling as to outweigh any artistic shortcomings.