Businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald helped build thousands of quality elementary schools in the segregated South.
“Rosenwald,” a documentary film about the early 20th-century philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, disappeared from theaters much too quickly after being released in August. An Academy Award nomination next month, when the honorees will be announced, may be a long shot for writer-director Aviva Kempner, but it would give the film the wider audience it deserves. It also would be a public service.
The Chicago-based Rosenwald, a son of German-Jewish immigrants, made his fortune in the early 1900s running Sears, Roebuck & Company when it was the nation’s largest retailer. The film’s main focus, however, is Rosenwald’s largely unsung philanthropic collaboration with Booker T. Washington, the former slave and black educator best known for his self-help philosophy and for training black teachers in the post-Civil War South. After Reconstruction ended, white backlash resulted in scarce funding for black public education in southern states, where nearly 90% of the black population lived. Washington therefore sought assistance from northern philanthropists like Rosenwald, who graciously obliged.
In 1911, Rosenwald agreed to help Washington build a handful of elementary schools in rural Alabama under a matching-grant program. Rosenwald put up part of the money, and the balance came from local residents in the form of cash and labor. The two men were impressed with the results and began thinking regionally. Within six years, the Julius Rosenwald Fund had been created and more than 600 Rosenwald schools constructed across the South. This initiative increased both the quantity and quality of black education. The buildings had modern lighting and sanitation. Classrooms had adequate supplies of books and desks and blackboards. The teachers were better trained and better paid.
Washington died in 1915 and Rosenwald in 1932, but the education program continued at the latter’s request, ending in 1948. By that time, some 5,300 Rosenwald schools had been built and more than a third of black children in the rural South had attended one. Some of these students, including Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and the late poet Maya Angelou, are interviewed in “Rosenwald,” along with scholars and civil rights leaders. Historian David Levering Lewis describes Rosenwald’s education fund—which not only built schools but also issued grants to the likes of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. Du Bois and many other rising black notables—as “a virtual Department of Education” for blacks. “Without that initiative,” he says, “we would have a different America.” The late Julian Bond, a Martin Luther King Jr. confidante, tells viewers: “You can look at the people who got grants from Julius Rosenwald and say these people are the predecessor generation to the civil rights generation that I’m a part of.”
A 2011 paper published by the Dallas Federal Reserve describes how this Rosenwald-Washington alliance narrowed the learning gap. “Within a generation, the racial gap in the South declined to well under a year and was comparable in size to the racial gap in the North,” write authors Daniel Aaronson and Bhashkar Mazumder. “Our main finding is that rural black students with access to Rosenwald schools completed over a full year more education than rural black students with no access to Rosenwald schools.”
Despite the schools’ popularity among the black poor, many elites frowned on the model. Rosenwald and Washington were criticized for building separate black schools that accommodated Jim Crow instead of pushing politically for the integration of white institutions. In reality, Rosenwald and Washington did both. Throughout his career, Washington funded legal challenges to racial discrimination. And Rosenwald financed a third of the litigation costs in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case that declared public-school segregation unconstitutional. But the larger point is that both men realized that poor blacks at the time needed good teachers and quality schools, not white classmates.
Sadly, it’s a lesson that remains unlearned by many opponents of school reform today. The Obama administration has attacked school-voucher programs that upset the “racial balance” in public schools. Apparently, whether a classroom is diverse is more important than whether anyone is learning. Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has distanced herself lately from teacher evaluations that include student test scores. She has also walked back support for the charter-school model that her husband embraced when he was president.
President Obama and Mrs. Clinton reject these reforms out of deference to teachers unions, not because they’re ineffective or unpopular. The evidence is overwhelming that school choice helps low-income minorities the most. Still, Democrats have difficulty getting elected without support from groups like the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which are able to provide millions of campaign dollars and armies of volunteers to knock on doors and man phone banks on Election Day. In Rosenwald’s day, poor black students were second-class citizens under the law. Today, they’re just treated that way by politicians and interest groups with other priorities.
This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal
Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator.