Julius Rosenwald, the son of an immigrant Jewish peddler and who eventually became the head of Sears, probably never dreamed of becoming wealthy (his father came to America with $20 in his pocket). And what he also never dreamed of was helping the African American community when times were the worst for them in the Jim Crow south. What he saw was the same inequality that his own people had suffered and didn’t think that would be useful to anybody. Rosenwald never finished high school and never made it to college, so it’s ironic that he spent the majority of his charitable funding on helping build schools and giving money to Tuskegee Institute in 1912, brought to his attention by the prominent Booker T. Washington, who convinced him to donate and serve on the board. And this is where his relationship with the African American community really began.
Based in Chicago, Rosenwald started the Rosenwald Fund and helped a plethora of black youths get their education, where many of them went on to become doctors, poets, artists, and dancers. His Some are very well known today, such as Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou (who is featured in the film), and famed opera singer Mariane Anderson. After the Great Migration to the north to escape the lynchings and Jim Crow laws, the Rosenwald Fund built housing in Chicago, built several YMCAs across America, and also built 5,400 schools in the south for African American children. Not liking the publicity surrounding his wealth, Rosenwald was the silent benefactor and unsung hero prior to the civil rights movement.
Directer and writer Aviva Kempner paints a modest picture of a lesser known man and sheds light on many different aspects of what his fund did for people. Rosenwald spends the first half of the movie regaling us with Julius Rosenwald’s past, dating back to his father, and his unexpected rise to prominence selling menswear and later becoming the head of Sears. Kempner, although the film is named after him, thankfully doesn’t spend the entire hour and a half going through his past and how he was a person. A lot of Rosenwald’s characteristics are construed through his acts, which Kempner spends the rest of the film highlighting.
This is when the African American community, and all the little-known facts, come into heavy play. It’s then that we’re left to marvel at this moving portrait of hard times and grateful people who received the opportunity to fulfill ambitions that would have otherwise been thwarted by the hindering laws targeting blacks. At times moving, touching, and heartwarming, Kempner is sure to also turn the spotlight onto the people the Rosenwald Fund helped as much as Rosenwald himself. Rosenwald does well in balancing both stories as well as taking care to note the importance of the work behind it and its significance. On occasion emotionally stirring, importantly informative, and as humble as Julius Rosenwald was.