Something changed in America between the time of Julius Rosenwald’s death in 1932 and the current presidential election cycle, in which a billionaire leads one party’s polls by spreading what his detractors see as a message of greed, xenophobia, and entitlement.
Owner of the retailing giant Sears, Roebuck & Co., Rosenwald was the son of an immigrant who started out as a door-to-door peddler and, through hard work and opportunities, opened his own store. Like his father, Rosenwald played by the rules but was tough and shrewd and became very rich.
Why has nobody heard of him? He wasn’t a big self-promoter and he didn’t think wealth marked him as exceptional. In an archival film snippet in Aviva Kempner’s artless but essential documentary, “Rosenwald,” he is heard to say, “Don’t be fooled by believing that because a man is rich he is necessarily smart. There is ample proof to the contrary.”
Now imagine those words uttered by certain billionaires today.
But Rosenwald was not just humble and wise. Despite his canny capitalism, he was what might today be called a socialist. He believed in spreading the wealth — or at least his own. He believed in social justice and racial equality.
The latter especially. He quietly spent millions building more than 5,000 schools (monickered affectionately “Rosenwald schools”) for African-American children in the South. He befriended Booker T. Washington and generously endowed the great black educator’s Tuskegee Institute. For decades his Rosenwald Fellowships benefited gifted people such as Marian Anderson, Ralph Bunche, and James Baldwin.
Like her subject, Kempner’s film doesn’t try to be flashy or stylish. She adheres to the Ken Burns school of old footage, photos, period ads, newspaper stories and cartoons, and — more inventively — illustrative scenes from movies and TV (a favorite: a young Clint Eastwood chatting with a Jewish tradesman in “Rawhide”). Also, inevitably, talking heads. But it’s hard to complain when they include people like the novelist Maya Angelou, the poet Rita Dove, Democratic congressman John Lewis, and the late icon of the civil rights movement Julian Bond. All benefactors in some way of Rosenwald’s largesse.
How many of these, and countless others, would have succeeded if not for such enlightened philanthropy, such humility, such generosity of spirit? No doubt we would be a much poorer nation without it.Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.