In an op-ed for the JTA, Peter Dreier argues that Jews have historically been at the forefront of progressive social change. Among his examples, he includes Julius Rosenwald:
Jewish social activism helped spearhead the early civil rights movement as well. In 1909, Joel Spingarn was a founder and then long-term president of the NAACP. Julius Rosenwald of Sears & Roebuck was a pioneer in the new field of progressive philanthropy. He endowed Jane Addams’ Hull House and Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, funded more than 5,000 schools for African Americans in the rural South, and supported the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee-based training center for labor and civil rights activists.
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On a recent visit to DuArt Film Labs in Midtown Manhattan (an excellent company that is an independent filmmaker’s best ally, especially its head Irwin Young and a savior for many independent productions) I was taken aback by a familiar face up on the wall. I was in town primarily to promote The Rosenwald Schools documentary and all of a sudden I found myself face to face in one of DuArt’s offices with a picture of Julius Rosenwald himself. The picture turned out to be part of a 2012 calendar (sponsored by the supermarkets of New York City) that is honoring famous philanthropists. The June subject is Julius Rosenwald, and his picture graces this month’s page along with a summary of his achievements in philanthropy. Gloria Monge was kind enough to tear out the June page featuring Rosenwald so we could share a digital copy of it here.
During his life, Rosenwald was reluctant to put his name on his philanthropic projects–a practice which has resulted in his relative lack of notoriety compared to other early 20th century philanthropists–so it is always good to see him remembered in some way. These sorts of fateful coincidences have happened over and over during the production of The Rosenwald Schools and it gives us a lot of encouragement that the film we’re making is an important one.
Last week, in an article about the continuing relevance of the Jewish community in presidential politics, Tablet Magazine brought up some of the history of Jews in the White House:
The Jews broke through in the 20th century, when Theodore Roosevelt named Oscar Straus to be Secretary of Commerce, making Straus the first Jewish Cabinet secretary. William Howard Taft became the first president to invite a Jew—Sears President Julius Rosenwald—to dinner at the White House in 1912. In addition, 1920 GOP candidate Warren G. Harding benefited from a campaign song written and performed by the Jewish entertainer Al Jolson, titled “Harding, You’re the Man for Us.” (Tablet Magazine, April 24, 2012)
Taft invited Julius Rosenwald to lunch on February 28th, 1912, but upon his arrival, he was surprised at the rather more generous invitation to stay overnight at the White House as well. In his biography of Rosenwald, Peter M. Ascoli quotes a letter from Rosenwald to his wife, who was back in Chicago, written while staying in the White House. Rosenwald was enthusiastic about the visit, praising the “genial” manner of Mr. and Mrs. Taft and the “simple food” served at both dinner and breakfast the next day.
President Taft with his wife, Helen
Library of Congress
What Rosenwald and Taft discussed is not fully known, but most likely one of the major topics was Taft’s campaign for reelection. Rosenwald had been a loyal Republican supporter for years, and had been supporting Taft publicly since at least 1910. A rift among progressives and conservatives in the Republican Party was forming due to the interest of Theodore Roosevelt in breaking from the party to mount an independent campaign against Taft. This bothered Rosenwald, and when he returned to Chicago he attended the Republican National Convention and began fundraising for Taft, pledging $10,000 of his own money. Taft eventually won the nomination, but lost the general election to Woodrow Wilson.
Political cartoon from 1912 satirizing infighting in the Republican Party between Taft and Roosevelt
Library of Congress
Rosenwald had visited the White House at least twice before 1912. The first time was at Taft’s request: when Taft heard of Rosenwald’s plan to provide challenge grants to black YMCAs across the country, he hosted Rosenwald in April of 1911 at the White House to convince him to “grandfather” in Washington D.C.’s YMCA that was already under construction. Later that year, Rosenwald used his prior relationship with Taft to get another meeting at the White House, this time on behalf of the American Jewish Committee (of which Rosenwald was a founding member). The AJC had made it its mission to convince the federal government to abrogate the Treaty of 1832 with Russia, for the reason that Russia was not allowing Jews to cross its borders and was strictly circumscribing their actions and movements within its borders. In his biography, Ascoli argues that this visit from Rosenwald played a large part in Taft’s decision to abrogate the treaty. While a diplomatically risky move, this was a vital stand against the state-sponsored persecution of Jews in Russia.
Rosenwald was dismayed at the results of the 1912 election, in which Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote, allowing Wilson to win by a large margin. During the following years, he remained involved with the Republican Party in a time when his fellow progressives were abandoning it. As years went by, Taft and Rosenwald continued to correspond intermittently.
By Michael Rose
Aviva Kempner with David Stern, (far left) attorney, philanthropist, social activist and great-grandson of Julius Rosenwald
On Sunday, (April 22nd) Karen Lash and Martha Ertman generously hosted a screening in their Northwest Washington D.C. home of the work in progress version of Aviva Kempner’s new film, The Rosenwald Schools.
The screening was followed by a lively discussion among the intimate audience. As it has at other screenings, the film provoked a conversation about philanthropy and early 20th century social progressivism among both those who remember the Rosenwald schools and those who were learning about it for the first time.
Aviva Kempner and Martha Ertman address the audience
Check back to this blog for information on future screenings. If you are able to help to finish this film by hosting your own fundraiser, you will receive credit in the final film. Please contact email@example.com if you are interested.
Photo of the Mission Inn taken around the time of Booker T. Washington’s Visit
Photo Credit: Detroit Publishing Company, Library of Congress
After showing two of her films and a work in progress version of her new documentary The Rosenwald Schools at a nearby venue, Ms. Aviva Kempner walked over to the historic Mission Inn in downtown Riverside, California. There was a moment of serendipity in this stroll when she came upon a bust of the great African-American educator, speaker and writer Booker T. Washington, whose partnership with Julius Rosenwald figures prominently in her new film. The bust, located near the main entrance of the hotel, commemorates Washington’s 1914 visit to Riverside at the invitation of the Inn’s proprietor, Frank Miller.
A 1922 photo of Frank Miller, owner of the Mission Inn
M. Bernard Edmonds created the monument, which was funded by a community drive in Riverside. The Black Voice News reported on the unveiling in 2004, an event that several of Washington’s descendents attended. The bronze bust honors Washington and also represents the tradition of abolitionism in Riverside. The Mission Inn is a landmark of Riverside and, in addition to Washington, has hosted more than a few presidents, scores of political and social luminaries and many celebrities.
Photo of the Booker T. Washington bust, taken in 2012
The plaque beneath the bust contains a quote from Washington: “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”
By Michael Rose