Helping Humanity in This Family of Immigrants Lives on for Over a Century

Julius Rosenwald
The Julius Rosenwald Fund Schoolhouse Construction Map

Fourteen years ago when we marked our 35th anniversary of Lifestyles Magazine/Meaningful Influence, we presented an exclusive cover interview with third generation New York philanthropist Alice Rosenwald whose philanthropic activities cover a wide range of human needs. This humble philanthropist was one of the first volunteers to join the rescue efforts at Bellevue Hospital following the tragic September 11 events. Her work on behalf of children is legendary.

Philanthropy runs deep in Alice’s family. In its most recent edition Smithsonian Magazine paid tribute to the legacy of Julius Rosenwald- Alice’s grandfather.

Little more than a century ago, deep in America’s rural South, a community-based movement ignited by two unexpected collaborators quietly grew to become so transformative, its influence shaped the educational and economic future of an entire generation of African American families.

Between 1917 and 1932, nearly 5,000 rural schoolhouses, modest one-, two-, and three-teacher buildings known as Rosenwald Schools, came to exclusively serve more than 700,000 black children over four decades. It was through the shared ideals and a partnership between Booker T. Washington, an educator, intellectual and prominent African American thought leader, and Julius Rosenwald, a German-Jewish immigrant who accumulated his wealth as head of the behemoth retailer, Sears, Roebuck & Company, that Rosenwald Schools would come to comprise more than one in five Black schools operating throughout the South by 1928.

Rosenwald was a humble philanthropist who avoided publicity surrounding his efforts; very few of the schools built under the program bear his name. His beliefs about the philanthropic distribution of wealth in one’s own lifetime contributed to the anonymity, as his estate dictated that all funds supporting the schools were to be distributed within 25 years of his death. Many of the former students were unaware of the scope of the program, or that other Rosenwald Schools existed outside of their county, until restoration efforts gained national attention.

Rosenwald and Washington were introduced by mutual friends, and Washington lobbied Rosenwald to join the board of directors at Tuskegee Institute, the Alabama university for African Americans he co-founded. They began a lengthy correspondence about how they might collaborate further and soon focused on schools for black children.

A central legacy of the Rosenwald School program is its contribution to educating leaders and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement. Some notable Rosenwald alumnus include Medgar Evers, Maya Angelou, members of the Little Rock Nine and Congressman John Lewis among many others.

As Lifestyles Magazine/Meaningful Influence approaches our 50th anniversary, we are happy in the knowledge that we are now serving the third (and in many cases the fourth) generation of North America’s most philanthropic families.