Review: Remarkable life of giving to African Americans
“Rosenwald” is an enlightening documentary about an enlightened man until it goes off the tracks, or more precisely repeats the same track over and over, toward the end.
Its subject is one Julius Rosenwald, a man literally born into the house across from the Lincoln family home in Springfield, Illinois, in 1862. The son of an immigrant who’d been a traveling peddler, Julius never finished high school, electing to move to New York City and apprentice with relatives who owned a retail store.
Eventually, he bought into an outfit called Sears Roebuck in Chicago. And eventually, he ended up running the company, transforming it into the biggest retail powerhouse in America. Julius, the uneducated peddler’s son, became extremely wealthy.
As a Jew, Rosenwald was well aware of prejudice. He soon began funding African-American causes. He helped establish black YMCAs and YWCAs across America. He befriended Booker T. Washington, then the most famous black person in America, and gave money to Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Washington decided to use some of that money to build some African-American schoolhouses; at the time what few black schoolhouses there were in the South were little more than shacks. Rosenwald liked that idea so much that he eventually ended up helping to fund more than 5,000 such schoolhouses across the south. They were actually called Rosenwald schools.
He didn’t stop there. When the great migration north came around, Rosenwald built a huge housing complex for blacks in Chicago (Quincy Jones grew up there). And his philanthropic Rosenwald Fund gave grants to everyone from Langston Hughes to Marion Anderson to Gordon Parks.
Unfortunately, director Aviva Kempner gets caught up in laundry-listing all the many important people Rosenwald bankrolled toward the film’s end and we lose sight of Rosenwald himself. Still, “Rosenwald” offers a compelling story of a man who obviously believed that giving is living.
Running time: 100 minutes