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New film profiles little-known Jewish philanthropist who built African-American schools
In a photo released by the "Rosenwald" filmmakers, a documentary about a Jewish philanthropist who helped fund the construction of thousands of schools for African-American children in the South during the early 20th Century, Julius Rosenwald stands with children from one of the schools. - photo by Mark A. Kellner

Although credited with establishing Sears, Roebuck & Company as a leading American retailer, Julius Rosenwald's name has largely been unremembered in the decades since he died in 1932.

A new documentary film, "Rosenwald," tells the story of how the onetime president and chairman of Sears used his money to help educate underprivileged black children in the American South in the early 20th century. At the time, black children were more likely to work in the South's fields than attend schools; when education was available, facilities were often ramshackle at best.

Rosenwald, born in 1862 in Springfield, Illinois, drew on his faith and experiences as a Jew in American business to help build schools for those children, filmmaker Aviva Kempner said. He was an active member of the Chicago Sinai Congregation, the first Reform Jewish temple in that city. The influence of the congregation's then-pastor, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, led Rosenwald first to contribute heavily to Jewish causes.

Rosenwald also saw parallels between pogroms against Jews in Eastern Europe and race riots in Springfield, both in 1908, and he helped sponsor meetings of the NAACP at the Sinai temple. By 1910, Rosenwald contributed to building a YMCA for African-Americans in Chicago. He also donated to Tuskegee University, a black school in Alabama first led by educator Booker T. Washington.

Washington challenged Rosenwald to donate money for elementary schools in the South, and the philanthropist ultimately pledged to contribute one-third of the cost. Another third would be raised in the African-American community and the final third would come from whites in the region. Approximately 5,300 "Rosenwald Schools" as the buildings ultimately were known were constructed under the plan.

Peter Ascoli, Rosenfeld's grandson and biographer, explained the history of the schools in a 2010 online video lecture.

"The philanthropy Rosenwald invested in African-American causes in the early 1900s changed the course of education for thousands of children in the rural South and helped foster the careers of prominent artists, including writer Langston Hughes, opera singer Marian Anderson and painter Jacob Lawrence," the Times of Israel reported. Other alumni include the late poet Maya Angelou, who appears in the documentary via archival footage, and civil rights movement veteran Rep. John Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, who is also interviewed in the film.

"It was a little school a short distance from my home walking distance. Beautiful little building. It was a Rosenwald school. It was the only school we had," Lewis said, according to website.

In the film, which will be released in August, civil rights leader Julian Bond also praised Rosenwald's faith-based philanthropy. "Its a wonderful story of cooperation between this philanthropist who did not have to care about black people, but who did, and who expended his considerable wealth in ensuring that they got their fair shake in America," he said.

Today, Ascoli said, efforts continue to restore former Rosenwald School buildings as testimonies to this philanthropic gesture. In Madison, North Carolina, a local group is attempting such a restoration, Fox8 television reported.
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