Four new interviewees were added to The Rosenwald Schools on Friday, June 7th. Director Aviva Kempner (working for the first time with our great New York crew, Dan, Seth and Chapin) shot interviews with David Levering Lewis, Hasia Diner, Gara LaMarche and Maren Stange. Below are some excerpts from interviews with the first 3 of them; Stange’s interview is covered in our latest blog post on Gordon Parks.
David Levering Lewis
David Levering Lewis is one of the leading scholars on African American history. He’s also an engaging writer and speaker who manages to keep readers of all kinds interested without sacrificing the complexity of his arguments. Having written an exhaustive two volume biography of W.E.B. Du Bois (who worked closely with the Rosenwald Fund) and an excellent article on the shared struggles and “assimilationist strategies” of African Americans and Jews in the early twentieth century, we were fortunate that Lewis agreed to add his voice to our film. In addition to presenting his thoughts on Du Bois and the Rosenwald Fund, Lewis perfectly summed up Julius Rosenwald’s modesty and legacy of promoting opportunity in this excerpt from his interview:
Julius Rosenwald once said that his own stellar success was ninety-five percent luck, but he must have known that most people were not going to have that kind of luck and they needed a significant grubstake. It seems to me that was the great concept of the Rosenwald Fund: for people who certainly needed a lot of luck, Julius Rosenwald was luck itself. (David Levering Lewis)
Despite his amazing success as president of Sears Roebuck, Rosenwald never saw himself as exceptional, and always maintained that he was merely a competent manager who had been fortunate enough to capitalize on the opportunities presented to him. As such, he saw philanthropy as his duty: he was a trustee of the wealth he had accumulated and he tasked himself with distributing it in such a way that it would most benefit the less fortunate and the oppressed.
Dr. Hasia Diner is an expert on the history of Judaism in the USA. The author of In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 and an upcoming chapter on Rosenwald, she made some great contributions to The Rosenwald Schools. In her interview, Diner contextualized key events like the lynching of Leo Frank (which was emblematic of the increase in Southern anti-Semitism that was concurrent with the rise of racial tension under Jim Crow), talked about Rosenwald’s complicated relationship with the Zionists of his day and brought out the intricacies of J.R.’s collaboration with Booker T. Washington. Diner also talked about Julius Rosenwald’s father, Samuel Rosenwald, who worked as a peddler immediately after arriving in Baltimore on a ship from his native Germany. Peddling a variety of goods to farmers and people without regular access to urban centers was a very common profession for Jewish immigrants during the nineteenth century, in spite of the obvious challenges of the job for the newly arrived immigrants that Diner eloquently described:
It was a very unique kind of occupation in as much as it demanded that a brand new immigrant, someone literally off the boat, go home to home, farm to farm, knock on the door and say, in a language he doesn’t know yet, “Good morning, Ma’am. How are you today?” It’s a kind of almost instant immersion into the local culture at an extremely deep level. (Hasia Diner)
Samuel Rosenwald quickly moved up the employment ladder from peddler to managing a series of stores and eventually became the owner of a successful clothing business in Springfield, Illinois. Likewise, his son started near the bottom of the garment trade in New York City, but eventually became president of one of the largest retailers in American history. Diner pointed out that this progression was somewhat paradoxical in light of Rosenwald’s later work. The belief in education as a route to social mobility that so informed Rosenwald’s philanthropy was not germane to his own trajectory, or to his family’s before him. In fact, to his lifelong regret, Rosenwald never completed high school.
Gara LaMarche is the former president and CEO of the Atlantic Philanthropies. As such, he’s done a lot of thinking about philanthropic strategies and he sees Rosenwald as an early innovator in the field, even among the pantheon of better-known philanthropists from the turn of the century (like Rockefeller and Carnegie). LaMarche talked about Rosenwald’s conviction about the importance of a sunset date for his foundation (that is, a pre-determined time before which all its funds would be expended) and “his belief that perpetual foundations would become sclerotic… [straying] far from the donor’s intention,” if they were to become too “comfortable and self-perpetuating.” LaMarche argued that this aggressive approach, the avoidance of perpetual endowments in order to direct the full force of your philanthropic giving towards making a “concentrated impact on… the problems of the day,” was a good model to follow, and has been shared to an extent by modern-day philanthropists like Chuck Feeney.
By Michael Rose