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Rosenwald, Julius

in: People

Julius Rosenwald (1862 – 1932): Influential Philanthropist and Humanitarian


Julius Rosenwald (1862 - 1932) wearing a bowler hat and topcoat
American business executive and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald 
Photo: Public Domain

Julius Rosenwald was born on August 12, 1862, to Samuel and Augusta Rosenwald, both Jewish immigrants, in Springfield, Illinois. Rosenwald was educated in the public schools in Springfield, and in 1879 he began his business career with Hammerslough Brothers, wholesale clothiers in New York City.

In 1885, Rosenwald came to Chicago to become president of Rosenwald & Weil, a retail men’s clothing store. After Sears, Roebuck & Company moved its headquarters to Chicago in 1893, Rosenwald was asked to become its vice president. He served Sears, Roebuck successively as vice president (1895-1910), president (1910-1925), and chairman of the board (1925-1932). Under his leadership, Sears developed its lucrative nationwide mail-order business, established savings and profit-sharing plans for employees, and became America’s largest retailer. On April 8, 1890, Rosenwald married Augusta Nusbaum of Chicago; the couple had five children. Rosenwald died on January 6, 1932.

Rosenwald’s success as a businessman and executive was matched by his many accomplishments as an influential philanthropist and humanitarian. He played a leading role in many progressive social reform organizations in Chicago and became the first president of the combined Jewish Charities of Chicago. In 1917, he created the Julius Rosenwald Fund to support the “well-being of mankind.” He supported the work of Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute and established YMCAs and YWCAs to serve African American communities in cities across the United States. He funded the creation of thousands of schools for rural African Americans in the South. He contributed $6 million to support Russian Jews settling in southern Russia and Palestine. He established one of the first urban housing projects on Chicago’s South Side, and he founded the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Rosenwald summarized his philosophy of philanthropy quite simply: “What I want to do is try and cure the things that seem wrong.” He set out on this task with abundant wealth derived from his leadership of Sears, Roebuck & Company, a strong social conscience, and the practical zeal and organizing ability of an eminently successful American businessman.

The things Rosenwald saw as wrong in American society were many and varied, but he focused his prime interest on African Americans support for education and research, medical care, better government, and support for Jewish charities and institutions. Rosenwald’s career as a public benefactor extended over three decades and was carried on after his death by the Rosenwald Fund. The termination of the activities of the Rosenwald Fund in 1948 was planned by Rosenwald before he died, since he felt strongly that each generation must accept responsibility for the problems of its own time.

Throughout this vast body of papers are found records of the beginnings and the subsequent implementation of the many causes that Julius Rosenwald championed. Rosenwald consistently sought the advice and counsel of many informed public figures. He corresponded with Jane Addams, Booker T. Washington, Mary McDowell, Abraham Flexner, Herbert Hoover, Felix Frankfurter, and many others. But of equal interest and importance are the informative letters of minor figures who wrote to Rosenwald either to solicit his assistance or to give him guidance. This correspondence is arranged under a lengthy array of names of organizations that illustrate the scope of Rosenwald’s involvement and the potential use of his papers as a primary historical source: American Civic Association, Atlanta School of Social Work, Belgian Relief Fund, Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, Chicago Bureau of Public Efficiency, Georgia Commission on Interracial Cooperation, Conference of Jewish Social Workers, Family Welfare Association, Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Illinois Society for Mental Health, Immigrants Protective League, Voluntary Parenthood League, among many others. Of course, the amount of documentation under each of these names varies with the degree of Rosenwald’s interest and commitment.

The papers bear the stamp of the man, the methods he used in dispensing some sixty million dollars of his fortune, and the goals that he hoped this money would attain. He applied his philanthropy to pioneering efforts in order to stimulate action and eventual responsibility by those more directly concerned. The fundamental social problems of a burgeoning urban population are the central theme of many of his activities, and consequently he supported agencies and groups that worked on such problems as birth control, old age security, the training of social workers, and juvenile delinquency. The record of Rosenwald’s involvement with social problems, reflecting both his attitudes and the needs presented by individuals and organizations, offers a unique historical perspective of social conditions. The data sent to Rosenwald in support of requests is of interest, especially when it is accompanied by the personal views and evaluations of keen observers of the social scene. Yet many of the individual pieces of correspondence or memoranda are often less than dramatic. Most of what was written is matter-of-fact and unadorned. Rosenwald handled these requests efficiently through aides and occasionally by himself since, as he once commented, he found giving away money much more difficult than accumulation. Included in the correspondence is the internal exchange of commentary and instructions that flowed between Rosenwald and the men who helped him reach his decisions.

Concern for justice was the essence of Rosenwald’s great interest in African Americans. This interest began shortly before the first World War when he met Booker T. Washington and became a trustee of the Tuskegee Institute. While best known for his assistance African American rural education in the South, he devoted many of his benefactions to the problems of African American health and working conditions through such organizations as: the Urban League, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the project that, he said, gave him greater personal satisfaction than all his other philanthropies, the building of African American Y.M.C.A.’s. The record of Rosenwald’s search for an understanding of African American life and his attempt to apply his resources to solving social problems makes these papers a particularly illuminating source. He explained his emphasis on aid to African American education quite simply when he said that while white colleges might expect continually growing support, “[so] very few persons are interested in the education of the Negro that I have deemed it wiser to concentrate my efforts in that direction.”

Beyond his aid to the socially marginalized, Rosenwald had a strong sense of the needs of scholarship and learning. The University of Chicago was the recipient of the largest portion of his gifts to higher education, yet he also gave sizable gifts to Harvard University, characteristically including money for publication fund and research assistance for Professor Felix Frankfurter. Among his many contributions to the University of Chicago were his early support of the Graduate School of Social Service Administration, and his subsidy of several works by Sophonisba P. Breckinridge on public service administration and housing. Learned societies and professional groups such as the Institute of Pacific Relations, the Council of Foreign Affairs, and the American Association of Museums were also his beneficiaries.

While many of the social problems to which Rosenwald applied his philanthropy have been transformed by an increasingly complex society, as he knew they would, the principles that guided his giving remain as one of his most lasting memorials. Rosenwald repeatedly decreed that his giving was intended to attack fundamental causes of human distress rather than to be a mere palliative and was to be used to support experiments in social improvement which could and should be taken over by the community.

Other public benefactors and trusts have surpassed the amount of money, that Julius Rosenwald gave to helping others. But few can match the wisdom and effectiveness with which Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Fund met the problems of their own day. The full measure of his contributions can be seen in his papers.

Source: Rosenwald, Julius. Biographical Note. Guide to the Julius Rosenwald Papers 1905-1963. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.