Julius Rosenwald

One man's philanthropic legacy.

Print this page Print this page

Rosenwald & Booker T. Washington

In the spring of 1910, Rosenwald's philanthropic approach appeared fully formed; he had started to build a legacy funding healthcare, progressive education, and Jewish survival initiatives. Yet that very summer, Rosenwald's philosophy of giving changed. Upon reading Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington's harrowing autobiography, Rosenwald awoke both to the tragedy of racism and to Washington's ameliorative efforts at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute.

In October of 1911, Julius, his wife Gussie, and Rabbi Hirsch boarded a private Pullman train headed to sultry Alabama to visit Tuskegee. He was astonished at what he encountered: "I don't believe there is a white industrial school in America or anywhere that compares to Mr. Washington's at Tuskegee." Efficiency, need, and results guided Washington and the industrial departments at Tuskegee.

Rosenwald hankered to get involved and, as usual, started with a small donation of needed items (in this case shoes for the students), before moving on to larger monetary gifts. Eventually, he joined the board, and in 1912, on his 50th birthday, Rosenwald bestowed a grant that would forever secure his philanthropic legacy--a gift to build rural schoolhouses in the South. 

Rosenwald had an unusual 50th birthday. He didn't want balloons, a fancy dinner, or a vacation across the Atlantic. Instead, Rosenwald used the occasion to demonstrate his giving philosophy and set an example for other philanthropists. Rosenwald's gift marked the beginning of his "Give While You Live" campaign, which he hoped would persuade a new class of wealthy capitalists to give carefully, give often, and give while they are alive. 

Give While You Live

Rosenwald's campaign offered a scathing denouncement of perpetual foundations. In a 1920 article in the Saturday Evening Post he wrote, "I am opposed to the principle of storing up large sums of money for philanthropic uses centuries hence…. The generation which has contributed to the making of a millionaire should also be the one to profit by his generosity."

Not only did he claim that perpetual foundations fail to honor the obligations to the labor force that secured a philanthropist's wealth, but he further argued that foundations would devolve into bureaucratic stagnation or irrelevance.

Of all his Give While You Live donations, Rosenwald's 1912 grant to fund the creation of African-American rural schools across the South most embodied his philanthropic philosophy. The grant required communal participation, with local residents helping to pay for and build the schools.

In The Rosenwald Schools of the American South, Mary Hoffschwelle comments that each school "created a stage upon which many different people could act." This fledgling grant quickly developed into an amply staffed and funded program. By the 1930s, more than 5,300 Rosenwald schools covered the American South.
Rosenwald didn't stop there. He began to fund projects organized by Washington's ideological adversary, W.E.B. Du Bois, who rejected Washington's belief in accommodation, arguing instead that African-Americans must work to secure legal and political rights. Rosenwald eventually admitted that an education system geared toward industrial education accommodated an unjust racial order and did not advance the long-term aspirations of African-Americans.

Yet instead of choosing sides, Rosenwald continued to assert that it was possible to improve the day-to-day prospects of individuals living in the Jim Crow South with Washington and fully support complete civil rights for African-Americans with Du Bois. He believed his dollars would heal the present and prepare for a just future. In homage to Rosenwald, Du Bois remarked, "He was a great man. But he was no mere philanthropist. He was, rather, the subtle stinging critic of our racial democracy."

Julius Rosenwald was a dogged philanthropist. He cared little about the posterity of his name while constantly fretting over the daily results of his bequests and actions. "I am certain," he voiced, "that those who seek by perpetuities to create for themselves a kind of immortality on earth will fail…. Real endowments are not money, but ideas."

Per the wishes of its founder, who died in 1932, the Julius Rosenwald Fund became the first foundation to deliberately spend all of its endowment. Rosenwald's legacy rests not in the legal entity of a perpetual foundation but rather in a Jewish giving strategy that prizes efficacy over ego and wisdom over wealth.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Tamara Mann

Tamara Mann is a Ph.D. Candidate in American History at Columbia University and a freelance writer.