Social Action Shabbaton: Julius Rosenwald and the Story of Rosenwald Schools

Pictured Above: Erika Scott (great granddaughter to Rosenwald), Stephanie Deutsch (author), Ralph Eubanks (Rosenwald school attendee and author, “Ever is a Long Time, a Journey into Mississippi’s Dark Past”) and Aviva Kempner (writer and director of the forthcoming film The Rosenwald Schools),

Stephanie Deutsch, historian and author, spoke at Tifereth Israel Congregation during the morning Shabbat Service on January 15, 2011. Each year Tifereth Israel Congregation organizes, over MLK weekend, a program that highlights an aspect of Jewish commitment to social justice. This year the program focused on Rosenwald Schools, the subject of  Deutsch’s forthcoming book, “You Need a Schoolhouse, the Story of Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosenwald and 5,000 Rosenwald Schools.”

Deutsch gave a speech :

“The passage we are considering this morning describes dramatic events — God taking the Israelites out of Egypt, leading them with fire by night and cloud by day, through the parted sea waters and, then, when they are hungry and desperate in the Sinai desert on the other side, nourishing them with sweet water, quail and manna. It is a powerful narrative, vividly supernatural and touchingly human.  In it God uses a person, Moses, to lead his sometimes reluctant, persistently grumbling or, as some translations put it, “murmuring” people, out of captivity in Egypt into the wilderness that stands between them and their ultimate destiny in the promised land of security as God’s chosen people.  It is one of the most dramatic stories ever told.

It is no mere coincidence that Taylor Branch used images from this narrative as the titles for the three volumes of his history of the civil rights movement and of the man so closely associated with it, Martin Luther King, Jr. (born exactly 82 years ago today). In Parting the Waters he tells of King’s early life as the son and grandson of ministers, his embrace of the philosophy of non-violence and his leadership, as a young pastor, of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1954; Pillar of Fire covers the 1963 march on Washington, King’s memorable “I Have a Dream” speech there and his Nobel Peace Prize a year later; the story ends in At Canaan’s Edge with the dramatic march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights, the mounting tension around school desegregation, and the terrible events of April 1968 that many of us remember.  Black Americans have often seen in their struggle for freedom and full integration into our national life a reflection of this Jewish journey from slavery towards freedom.  Civil Rights leader John Lewis, the Congressman from Georgia who marched with King, mentions in his memoir that he remembers as a child in church singing the old spiritual “Go Down, Moses” and that he felt a “kinship with the children of Israel.” The spirituals’ words reflected the understanding of slavery as a profound injustice, an offense to the Lord, and the certainty that the struggle for freedom from it would be divinely inspired, divinely sustained and, ultimately, would succeed. Lewis writes, too, that even as a child he was aware that the disdain with which he and other blacks were considered extended to Jews. In the small southern town where he grew up, they, too, were often a despised people.

Similarly, of course, many Jews have felt a particular identification with the long struggle for freedom and justice of African Americans.  One such was Julius Rosenwald whose name was so widely recognized in January, 1932 that the New York Times front page carried a headline, “Rosenwald Dead, Nation Mourns Him.” Rosenwald was the son of Jewish immigrants from northern Germany, born in 1862 in Springfield, Illinois where his father and uncles ran a clothing store.  He grew up attending the local public school, helping out in the family store, receiving religious education with the dozen or so other Jewish children in town.  His father and uncle were among the founders of the temple there and each took a turn as president of the Brith Sholem congregation.  Julius left school at 16 and moved to New York City where he apprenticed with two uncles who were manufacturing as well as selling men’s clothes.

In 1895 Julius Rosenwald was offered the chance to buy into a small, unknown mail order company called Sears, Roebuck.  Despite the fact that he had just launched a different venture and that he had a wife and growing family, he sensed a good opportunity and quickly accepted the offer.  With his new partner’s flair for promotion and his own meticulous attention to detail, not to mention the introduction of Rural Free Delivery and the tremendous growth in manufacturing, business was terrific.  By the turn of the century Sears was selling everything from pocket watches to farm machinery and Rosenwald was soon a millionaire many times over.  In his first year as a rich man he bought a big house (by this time he had five children) and increased his annual donation to the Associated Jewish Charities of Chicago so that his was the largest in the city.

Rosenwald was a member of the Sinai congregation, presided over by a dynamic Reform rabbi, Emil Hirsch, who emphasized civic engagement and a commitment to social justice as the way for modern Jews to live out their faith and this prompted Rosenwald to think seriously about how he would use his new wealth.  In the summer of 1908 there had a been a shocking three days of racial rioting in Rosenwald’s home town of Springfield that left several people dead and the black part of town largely destroyed.  Knowing about the pogroms Jews were suffering in Europe at the time sharpened his reaction to this.  Shortly after this a friend gave him a copy of Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery. Rosenwald lacked formal education but he had always had a curious and practical mind.  As a Jew he was particularly sensitive to prejudice and injustice.  He began to see improved racial understanding and better conditions for blacks as essential to the country’s future.

In May of 1911, when an opportunity arose for him to meet the author of Up From Slavery, Rosenwald was eager to do so.  Washington was then the most widely recognized and revered black man in America.  Having been born a slave on a small farm in Virginia and having literally walked from there to Hampton Institute, he had become the founder, at the age of twenty-five, of Tuskegee Institute in rural Alabama, like Hampton a training school for black teachers.  Thanks largely to Washington’s tremendous energy and persistence as a fundraiser the school had become successful. Washington became famous on a national level in 1895 when he was the only black speaker at the opening ceremony for a world’s fair type exhibition in Atlanta celebrating the South’s progress since the end of the Civil War.  His speech, to a large audience of prominent whites with blacks listening from the Jim Crow balcony, emphasized the good will that blacks brought to the task of developing their region and reversing, through their own efforts, the negative effect on them of generations of enforced ignorance and lack of opportunity. He suggested that in the immediate social equality was less important than opportunities for economic viability.  The speech was short – about five minutes long – and it was applauded and praised by both blacks and whites.  Frederick Douglass had died earlier that year and people of both races started referring to Washington as the new preeminent black leader.

Washington’s public success was mixed with personal heartbreak.  His first wife, his childhood sweetheart, and his second, a brilliant teacher he had hired to work at Tuskegee, had both died leaving him twice widowed with three young children.  He married a third time but spent a lot of time on the road away from home making speeches to raise money and awareness of Tuskegee.  And despite the optimism he always expressed publicly, despite his honorary degree from Harvard and dinner at the White House with president Theodore Roosevelt, even as he was encouraging black people to work hard and become educated, to accept responsibility for their own fates, he knew that the treatment they were receiving from white Americans was, in many respects, getting not better but worse.  The year after his speech, Plessy v. Ferguson made it legal to mandate separate accommodations for the races in trains and elsewhere.  At the same time, Southern states were systematically excluding blacks from voting and the vigilante “justice” of lynching (which in my ignorance, I used to think of as an occasional, random thing) was an relentless horror.  The de facto slavery of the share cropping system ensured ongoing poverty.  As this continued in the first decade of the twentieth century, some blacks became harshly critical of Washington’s leadership as too timid and to refer derisively to his famous speech as “the Atlanta Compromise.”

So when they met Washington and Rosenwald knew they could be of service to each other. They also, amazingly, hit it off personally.  Both were highly disciplined, organized, practical men.  Each had a strong desire to do more than talk about issues.  They were oriented towards action. The day after their meeting Rosenwald took Washington on a tour of the enormous Sears plant and he accepted Washington’s invitation to visit Tuskegee.  Six months later, in the fall of 1911, as he would do many times in the following years, he did.  These trips were amazing – each time Julius and his wife, Gussie, would fill a private train car with family members and friends, often people prominent in Chicago.  Rabbi Hirsch was a guest on one trip.  They would travel overnight south from Chicago, changing trains in Nashville and again in Montgomery, then riding a small railroad forty miles east through dense pine woods.  It is still very rural today.

On that first visit to Tuskegee Julius and his guests, who knew almost nothing about the lives of Southern blacks, were surprised and impressed by what they say.  The hilly campus was an imposing collection of red brick buildings constructed by the students of bricks they had manufactured there.  Washington’s home, the Oaks, was large and gracious, surrounded by lovely gardens.  It also had been built and was staffed by students.  The guests stayed at a guest house in the middle of the campus, they ate meals prepared by students, visited classes, met faculty members (among them George Washington Carver, the famous researcher on peanuts). The highlight of the visit was the evening chapel service where Washington introduced Rosenwald to the students. Rosenwald spoke briefly and then the students sang spirituals. In those pre-radio, pre-sound recording days, these songs came to many white visitors as a revelation.  They had never before heard the longing, the suffering and the faith the spirituals from slavery times so powerfully communicate.  Julius described himself as being moved to tears.

Rosenwald agreed to serve on the Board of Tuskegee and he invited Washington to come visit him at his home in Chicago.  Years ago I interviewed Rosenwald’s youngest son, William (by then a very old man) who remembered that visit and the fact that the two men spent a lot of time together talking.  One result of those conversations was a plan to provide what both men agreed was one of the most glaring needs of Southern blacks, especially the huge majority of them that lived in rural areas – education.  There were many places in the rural South where despite a stated government commitment to public education for both races there were no schools at all for blacks, where ad hoc classes were held in run down churches or barns, where the school term, if it existed at all, was just five months long.  Washington told Rosenwald that well-built schoolhouses would have a tremendous positive impact on rural communities and that black people, who passionately desired education for themselves and their children, would contribute their own money to get them.  This fit well with Rosenwald’s philosophy that it is better to teach a man to fish than to give him food.  He agreed to contribute $350 for each of the first six small schools plus $50 per school for an agent from Tuskegee to go out into the countryside and talk up the project, engage the commitment of the local school board, and solicit donations from whites and blacks – a kind of community organizer if you will.

The school building program created by Washington and Rosenwald resulted over the next twenty years in the construction of almost five thousand schoolhouses that became part of the public education systems in fifteen states and educated about a third of the African American children in the South.  Because they were built using contributions from local people and because, in many places they were the only facilities where blacks could gather, the schools became sources of great pride in their communities.  They are called “Rosenwald Schools” but the name is a misnomer.  Rosenwald’s financial contribution was just fifteen percent of the schools’ total cost.  The bulk of the money that built them came from the state governments that became their proprietors.  A sum slightly greater than Rosenwald’s gift came from people, most of them poor, most of them black, people who had already paid taxes that should have provided them with schools – people who gave money, land, building materials, food for work days and vital commitment and energy.

Today all across the South that energy is at work again in the effort to preserve Rosenwald schools. In the wake of  Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down school segregation as unconstitutional, as school systems moved to consolidate (with agonizing slowness in some places), they rarely chose to put the newly integrated classes in facilities that had been black schools.  The Rosenwald schools that small black communities had worked so hard to create and then to maintain became obsolete.  For a time they were forgotten and some fell apart, vanished.  Others stood empty and unused for years.

In the past twenty years, though, a movement has sprung up to reverse this trend. In many small towns and communities all across the south, groups of alumni are working to preserve Rosenwald schools and the history these small structures so powerfully communicate.  Like Jews recalling the Exodus at Passover, they are reliving the story of their communities’ dedication to the ideal of education as the path that would lead them from the wilderness of poverty and ignorance to a place of justice and equality.  They are again coming together, this time with the goal of preserving their heritage by reclaiming the buildings that were Rosenwald schools.

Today’s reading from Exodus ends with the Israelites reaching, at last, the edge of the land of Canaan.  Just as the Taylor Branch trilogy concludes, in the volume of that name, with the assassination of Martin Luther King, so our Torah portion ends with conflict – the attack of AHmalek and the ferocious battle that ensues. God has been with the Israelites, providing everything they need to survive but even so, enemies abound.  They must be fought and defeated again and again. In the case of our American push towards a more fully realized expression of our ideals of freedom and equality, the story does not end with the significant accomplishments that grew out of Julius Rosenwald’s imaginative philanthropy, of Booker T. Washington’s dignity and determination, of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspired leadership.  But the work of these three men can be seen as manna in the wilderness and sweet water in the desert, a reminder of God’s loving presence with us, sustaining us always, propelling us forward towards the fair and just society which we believe reflects God’s will for us and to which we aspire.”