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Chicago’s ‘under-known’ hero of civil rights movement

Julius Rosenwald

Julius Rosenwald

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Updated: September 29, 2013 6:49AM

The celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington — and Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech — wrap up on Wednesday with remarks by Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter at the Lincoln Memorial.

So this seems a good time to remind everyone that before the civil rights era of the 1960s, there was Chicago’s Julius Rosenwald, helping to pave the way for it.

Rosenwald, born in Springfield in 1862, the son of German-Jewish immigrants, was a part owner of Sears, Roebuck and Co., president or board chairman of the company from 1908 through 1932, the year he died. Rosenwald became one of the richest men in the nation — and a philanthropist determined to aid struggling African Americans who faced discrimination and Jim Crow laws.

Washington, D.C., filmmaker Aviva Kempner’s latest project is a documentary on Rosenwald, who was inspired by two men he knew: Booker T. Washington — the slave-born educator who founded Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute — and Rabbi Emil Hirsch, the leader of Chicago’s Sinai Congregation, then on the South Side.

Kempner’s film features Chicagoans who tell the story of Rosenwald’s civil rights legacy.

She told me that she decided to make the movie after hearing former NAACP chairman Julian Bond give a talk on black-Jewish relations.

“When I heard Julian speak, I knew that under-known Jewish hero [Rosenwald] should be the subject of my next film,” said Kempner, whose features include “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” tracing the life of actress Gertrude Berg, and “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” about the baseball star.

The focus of Kempner’s film is Rosenwald’s extraordinary charity, which created a network of 5,500 schools, mainly in the South, serving impoverished African-American children ignored by their local public schools. The Rosenwald schools educated more than 660,000 students between 1915 and 1932.

Another Rosenwald project — also part of the film — was construction of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments in 1929, aimed at providing decent housing at a time of rampant segregation in Chicago. The buildings at 4618-4646 S. Michigan — now in disrepair, with redevelopment plans potentially pending — were once the home of Quincy Jones, Joe Louis, Gwendolyn Brooks and Nat King Cole.

Robert Rochon Taylor managed the Rosenwald apartments before becoming the chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority — with the now demolished CHA Taylor Homes named after him. Kempner filmed interviews with Taylor’s daughters, Lauranita Dugas and Barbara Bowman, the mother of White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.

She also inteviewed Ralph Metcalfe Jr., son of Olympic sprinter and former Rep. Ralph Metcalfe (D-Ill.), who was a resident of the Rosenwald apartments, and former Chicago Schools Supt. Manford Byrd, who lived there as well.

Kempner filmed Rosenwald’s grandson, Peter Ascoli, a Hyde Park resident who authored “Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South.”

On Tuesday, I asked Ascoli about connections between Rosenwald’s work and the rise of the civil rights movement 50 years ago.

“Rosenwald schools, though segregated, produced graduates who, in many cases, formed the basis of a black middle class,” Ascoli told me.

“The grants of the Rosenwald Fund to distinguished black intellectuals and to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Urban League clearly helped to lay the basis for what became Brown vs. Board of Education. More important, perhaps, Rosenwald came to believe that blacks and whites were equal and should be treated as equals — an idea that was positively radical for a white man to hold in the U.S. in the 1910s and ’20s,” he said.

Kempner finances her movies through her non-profit Ciesla Foundation, and Rosenwald movie funders include Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation and the Foundation for Jewish Culture. Kempner will be returning to Chicago in the fall for more research, additional filming and fund-raising to complete production.

The movie website and blog,, details Rosenwald’s life from Hyde Park to Highland Park with present day connections.

Kempner is preserving — and telling — an important story about African-American and Jewish history, part of the arc of the civil rights movement leading to the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.


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