Philanthropy and Democracy / Philanthropy and Inequality / Philanthropy in the News

Julius Rosenwald was not a Hero

Editors’ Note: In response to a recent SSIR piece describing Julius Rosenwald as a philanthropic hero, HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey reflects on the distinction between an effective philanthropist and a heroic figure. 

“Julius Rosenwald is one of our philanthropic heroes.” This is how Bridgespan’s William Foster, Gail Perreault, and Elise Tosun begin their essay on “Ten Ways to Make a Big Bet on Social Change” published this past May in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The three authors note that this son of German Jewish immigrants and president and CEO of Sears, Roebuck & Co. was a model philanthropist who made “big bets on social change.” After all, the Chicago-based philanthropist successfully impacted elementary and secondary education for Black Americans in the South:

The effect of Rosenwald’s approximately $70 million (in today’s dollars) big bet was transformative. By 1932, Rosenwald Schools educated more than 35 percent of all African American children in the South. The gap between the region’s races in ‘years of school completed’ shrunk from three years in 1910 to half a year in 1940, with Rosenwald Schools judged responsible for 40 percent of these gains.

Foster, Perrault, and Tosun celebrate the achievements of the Rosenwald schools, and they are not alone. Julius Rosenwald’s grandson, historian Peter M. Ascoli, published a celebratory biography of his grandfather in 2006, a figure who remains relevant to today’s philanthropists. To this point, the back cover of Ascoli’s book includes admiring words from Bill Gates. Nine years later, Aviva Kempner released a documentary of the philanthropist where she praised Rosenwald’s decision to finance schools in the South and thus described him as a silent partner of the pre-Civil Rights movement. A Wall Street Journal review of the film, for example, designated Rosenwald “an unsung hero of black education.” Similarly, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker noted on the pages of Time last year that the Chicago businessman was one of his “personal heroes” for helping to construct more than “5,300 schools across the segregated South and open[ing] classroom doors to a generation of African-American students, including Maya Angelou and Congresman John Lewis.”

While echoing these other Americans’ celebrations of the Rosenwald schools, the three authors of the SSIR article explain that they focus on how Julius Rosenwald accomplished his success. “The ‘how’ is indeed where Rosenwald truly excelled,” they write, “building a new field of endeavor, creating standards (such as school building design), establishing a durable funding model, partnering with an esteemed community leader [such as Booker T. Washington], and propelling it all with an explicit ‘giving while living’ philosophy.” This historical figure, the authors conclude, serves as a useful model for contemporary American donors wishing to make “big bets on social change.”

As a historian of philanthropy and racial inequality in the U.S., I cringe at the suggestion that Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) serves as a historical model of a hero who made “big bets on social change.” Granted, he was rather unique among his philanthropic peers in his decision to establish a limited-life foundation rather than a perpetual endowment. But in his advocacy of Black Americans in a Jim Crow South, he was far from unique, or for that matter, a risk-taker who wagered big. He was a strategic and effective advocate of Black Southerners, for sure, but not a heroic one. To illustrate this, I offer some background on the history of the Civil War and decades that followed in the United States. I also contrast Rosenwald with contemporaries of his such as Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964), Ida B. Wells (1862-1931), and Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) who were, in fact, particularly brave figures.


To cover the basics, let’s start by acknowledging that the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, was fought over the legality and constitutionality of slavery. With a Northern victory, a Republican-run U.S. federal government subsequently overruled legal doctrine and constitutional amendments that differentiated the legal and constitutional status of white and Black people in the United States. In this vein, the U.S. Congress passed the Reconstruction Amendments abolishing slavery and declaring that Black Americans were American citizens with equal protection of the laws. It also declared that Black men—if not Black women—had the right to vote. This was the Reconstruction era when African-American men not only won the franchise but also participated as elected officials. From the late 1860s and 1870s, for example, approximately 2,000 Black men served in some sort of elective office. And beyond the halls of these legislative bodies, African Americans negotiated their new status as equal citizens. In ‘To Joy My Freedom, for example, historian Tera Hunter excavates the records of Black women in Atlanta to illustrate how these women defined freedom and reacted to the resistance they faced from whites as they, for example, reconstituted their family lives and redefined themselves as paid laborers. Historian Eric Foner notes: “If the era was tragic, it was not because Reconstruction was attempted but because the effort to construct an interracial democracy on the ruins of slavery failed.”

In the 1870s, white Northern Republicans brought this era of greater equality for Black Americans to a close. Increasingly focused on labor strife in the North, white Republican leaders analogized the immigrant working class in Northern industries with former slaves in the South and increasingly found sympathy with white Southern Democrats. Foner and fellow historian Nell Irvin Painter note that these trends led Republicans and white Northerners more broadly to lessen their commitment to racial equity in the South, and by the late 1870s, Republicans had agreed to pull federal troops from the region. What followed was the passage of Jim Crow legislation, as white Southern Democrats suppressed Black men’s suffrage and passed laws to codify white supremacy and Black subordination. The U.S. Supreme Court famously condoned the legality of these segregation laws in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), suspending reality in order to conclude that Jim Crow segregation could be a form of equality, and thus, satisfy the equality expectations of the federal government’s Reconstruction Amendments.

As other white Northerners during the Reconstruction Era, elite Northern philanthropists had communicated that they wanted to improve the lives of Black Americans. But like many of their peers by the 1870s, they were even more eager to help whites control and manage white supremacy and Black subordination in the South. Thus for gilded age tycoons and elite philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller Sr., the educational model for Black Americans suggested by the Black president of Tuskegee Institute was particularly attractive. President Booker T. Washington proposed educating Black Americans for industrial and agricultural jobs that whites did not covet in the region. In funding the Tuskegee educational model, then, these white Northern philanthropists could perceive themselves as advocates of racial equity, and perhaps even more so, as effective philanthropists working hand-in-hand with leading white leaders in the South.

Like his elite peers in philanthropy, Julius Rosenwald collaborated directly with Booker T. Washington in funding schools for Black Southerners. The curriculum of the Rosenwald schools thus likely echoed much of Washington’s educational model for Black Americans, though I am unclear the extent to which they did. What is clearer, though, is that these schools worked within—rather than challenged—the repressive racial regime of the Jim Crow South. In The Education of Blacks in the South (1860-1935), for example, historian James D. Anderson explains that Rosenwald not only required the cooperation and approval of white school officers, but also called for Black Americans to raise enough money to match or exceed the amount requested from his philanthropy. This practice complemented white Southerners’ own expectations for the funding of Black schools. Anderson writes: “Since the end of the Reconstruction era Black southerners had adapted to a structure of oppressive education by practicing double taxation. They had no choice but to pay both direct and indirect taxes for public education. Southern public school authorities diverted school taxes largely to the development of white public education. Blacks then resorted to making private contributions to finance public schools” (156). Complementing the repressive norms of the Jim Crow South, the Rosenwald schools perpetuated—rather than challenged—the practice of double taxation.

Of course, Julius Rosenwald can be credited for helping to establish schools for Black Americans where none existed before, and for being effective in doing so precisely because he included leading Southerners in the effort. But it also should be clear that, in the process, he also conformed to the repressive norms and expectations of the region.

This should be little surprise, though, because Rosenwald was not interested in directly confronting or attacking the racial regime of the Jim Crow South. Even in his admiring biography of his grandfather, Ascoli admits that Rosenwald was a “cautious Chicago businessman” who was not in favor of racial equality even as he advocated on behalf of Black Americans. To illustrate this point, Ascoli quotes a 1911 letter written by Rosenwald, just a year before he and Washington started plans for building rural schools:

What interests me particularly is that we have a problem to deal with: namely, bringing about a condition whereby the Whites do what they can to make of the Colored people a decent, respectable element, if not from a sense of justice, at least in self-defense. Equality is furtherest [sic] from my mind, but a nearer approach to justice toward these people must, in my opinion, be brought about through one method or another (96).

Sure, Rosenwald wanted to improve the lives of Black Americans in the South, but without directly challenging the racial regime that subjugated them as second-class citizens. To say the least, he was not risking significant retaliation from white Southerners or marginalization among his philanthropic peers in the North by funding these schools. It was a safe bet that sat well with this prudent businessman, and with the system of racial apartheid that whites had constructed in the South after the Reconstruction era.

By comparison, it would have required significant courage to confront head-on white supremacy and Black subordination in the region. Courage that Julius Rosenwald did not have nor wanted to have. When Rockefeller Foundation staff member Edwin Embree became president of the Rosenwald Fund in 1928, he directed the organization beyond its founder’s main concern in rural schools. Under his leadership, for example, the foundation supported Black colleges beyond Tuskegee and Hampton Institutes, and so too medical care for Black Americans. The funding of scholarship and fellowships, Ascoli writes, started slowly. Over the years, these fellowships supported Southern Black undergraduates wanting to study in Northern universities or colleges as well as Black nurses, Urban League leaders, and librarians in search of further training. The organization also funded “individuals of exceptional promise” such as Black biologist Ernest Everest Just, and African American “creative workers” including sculptor Augusta Savage and singer Marian Anderson (313-14). These programs might have challenged white supremacy directly in ways that the school building project did not, though I would have to do further research into the Rosenwald Fund during Embree’s presidency to confirm such a shift.

I digress, though, because Americans celebrating Julius Rosenwald almost exclusively mention the philanthropist’s support of schoolhouses as the reason why he is their philanthropic hero. In funding these rural schools, I argue, Rosenwald proved to be a strategic and effective philanthropist, but absolutely not a heroic one. A hero, by contrast, would have confronted white supremacy and Black subordination in the region, in ways that he did not and was not interested in doing.

Assuming he had been committed to challenging white supremacy in the Jim Crow South, for example, he could have done so in many ways. Rosenwald could have excluded white Southerners from his school building plans, and he could have lobbied against their practice of double taxing Black Americans for public school education. But he wasn’t that person. Most people, in fact, aren’t either. It takes strong-willed individuals full of bravery and conviction to be willing to risk their careers, their livelihoods, and even their lives for the sake of doing so. That’s the exceptional person, of course, but that’s not to say that the Jim Crow era lacked heroes who did courageously confront white supremacy. Such contemporaries of Rosenwald included Black scholars, writers, and activists such as Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell.

To use Foster, Perrault, and Tosun’s own words, these three Americans were exceptionally brave individuals making “big bets on social change.” They were aware that they were challenging the status quo of white repression in major ways, and thus, that they were risking their safety, their lives, their livelihoods, and at the very least, their dignity. In challenging Black Americans’ subordination, they knew that they would confront white resistance and violence—which they absolutely did—and that they would need to remain courageous in its face.

During a trip to New York City in the spring of 1892, for example, journalist Ida B. Wells received news that whites had destroyed her newspaper’s office back home in Memphis. It was in response to an editorial she had written and published criticizing recent lynchings in the city. After hearing that white men were awaiting her at the Memphis railway station in order to kill her, Wells made the painful decision not to return home. That said, she continued her anti-lynching advocacy both in the United States and England, helping to launch the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was heroic precisely in her continued efforts to fight racial subordination, even at the expense of her own safety. Mary Church Terrell showed similar courage.

A fellow founding member of the NAACP, Terrell detailed in a 1906 essay what it meant to be Black in a Jim Crow Washington D.C. Discussing public transportation in the city, for example, the writer and activist knew well that if she refused to be humiliated by sitting in the back of electric cars, she would be “cast into jail and forced to pay a fine for violating the Virginian laws.” Well aware of the potential consequences of challenging this form of white oppression, Terrell nevertheless founded the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the District of Columbia Anti-Discrimination Laws (CCEAD) some decades later, with the purpose of attacking public segregation. Terrell also helped to end lunch counter segregation in the nation’s capital.

Terrell and Wells were two of Rosenwald’s contemporaries. So too was the scholar and educator Anna Julia Cooper whose efforts to advocate on behalf of Black youth also met with hostility. As an example, she was dismissed as principal of a Black high school in Washington D.C. after she opposed industrial education as the dominant or only type of education at her school. She felt that the controlling forces of the Booker T. Washington educational model did not fully support the higher learning of Black students. “For her courage and her tenacity,” historian Leona C. Gabel writes, “Cooper endured clandestine efforts to belittle her, as well as attacks upon her ability and her character so damaging that the board finally, in 1906, declined to renew her appointment as principal.” This personal loss did not deter her activism for the full scholarly potential of her students as well as herself. And to be clear, these were particularly daring and subversive acts at a time when white Americans did not expect Black Americans nor any woman to aspire to such professional goals and created undisguised barriers toward their achievement.

In 1892, Cooper published A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South; a landmark text describing Black women’s oppression at the intersection of racial and gender discrimination, and thus too their central role in defining the country’s progress. And at the age of 67, she received her doctorate at the Sorbonne, where she wrote essays on “Equality of Races and the Democratic Movement” and “Legislative Measures Concerning Slavery in the United States.” Her thesis was on the French Revolution and its relation to world slavery.

Returning to Julius Rosenwald, it is telling that the authors of the SSIR piece along with other leading Americans have described the Chicago philanthropist, and not other contemporaries such as these three Black women, as their hero in the Jim Crow South. Of course, Americans are more comfortable making heroes out of white rather than Black people; men rather than women; and most definitely white men rather than Black women, even in civil rights history. So a wealthy white man such as Rosenwald is more readily accessible and known to the American public than Wells, Barnett, or Cooper. But let’s go a step beyond that obvious cultural criticism. Perhaps the authors of the SSIR piece simply wanted to focus on the role of past philanthropists rather than activists, which is understandable considering SSIR’s readership. Their piece was geared toward philanthropists and their staff and trustees. That said, the authors should know that they thus are ignoring many actual heroes from the same time period and searching for them where few (or perhaps none) existed at the time. After all, many philanthropists such as Rosenwald as well as Carnegie and Rockefeller were wealthy white men who were too invested in white supremacy and Black Americans’ subordination to want to drastically transform the status quo in the Jim Crow South.

Or perhaps the authors are comfortable with the fact that Rosenwald advocated a vision of social change that sat well with leading whites in the North and the South. If so, they simply do not expect too much of their heroes in philanthropy. Or maybe a philanthropist such as Rosenwald who achieves impact—however narrowly defined—is necessarily heroic to them. If so, these authors threaten to render the words hero and heroism meaningless in the history of white oppression in this country. And there’s a cost to that, because heroes indeed have existed and they can serve to inspire all of us today. They can inspire us to be bold against the ongoing threat of white supremacy in the United States.

With Julius Rosenwald, I suggest, we have someone who was effective in his philanthropy in the Jim Crow South precisely because he embraced a model of social change that leading white Americans at the time were willing to accept. Because of it, he was able to win their support and erect over 5,000 schools for Black Americans throughout the region. However, to be clear, this did not make him a hero. It made him a strategic funder who worked within the world of white oppression to marginally improve the lives of African Americans.

By contrast, a braver, more courageous, valiant, and superhuman individual—the exceptional hero—would have attacked more directly and more forcefully white supremacy and Black subordination in the South and so too throughout the country (after all, the country as a whole condoned and echoed this racial regime). Such an American would have tried to reestablish and outdo the more egalitarian and hopeful past that Black Americans had experienced during the Reconstruction era. Such a courageous person Rosenwald was not, and neither did he want to be. And neither were most Americans. This is exactly what made Ida B. Wells, Anna Julia Cooper, and Mary Church Terrell so exceptional, so courageous, so unique, so heroic. To borrow once again the phrase from the SSIR essay, these three Americans are examples of the genuine heroes of the Jim Crow South who risked their lives and livelihoods to make “big bets on social change.”

-Maribel Morey, HistPhil co-editor (@histphil, @maribelmorey1).


  • Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss, Dangerous Donations: Northern Philanthropy and Southern Black Education, 1902-1930 (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1999).
  • James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988).
  • Peter M. Ascoli, Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006).
  • Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South (Xenia, Ohio: The Aldine Printing House, 1892).
  • Angela Davis, Women, Race & Class (New York: Random House, 1981).
  • Philip Dray, Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen (Boston: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Co., 2010).
  • Leona C. Gabel, From Slavery to the Sorbonne and Beyond: The Life and Writings of Anna J. Cooper (unpublished manuscript, held at the Leona C. Gabel Papers, Five College Archives & Manuscript Collections).
  • W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935).
  • W.E.B. Du Bois, “Negro Education,” The Crisis (Feb. 1919), 1973-1978.
  • Edwin R. Embree, “Julius Rosenwald Fund,” South Atlantic Bulletin 7(4) (Feb., 1942).
  • Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1988).
  • Paula J. Giddings, Ida B. Wells and the Campaign against Lynching (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008).
  • Mark S. Giles, “Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, 1858-1964: Teacher, Scholar, and Timeless Womanist,” The Journal of Negro Education 75(4) (Fall, 2006).
  • Tera Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).
  • Vivian M. May, Anna Julia Cooper, Visionary Black Feminist: A Critical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2007).
  • Nell Irvin Painter, Standing at Armageddon (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008).
  • Frances Richardson Keller, “An Educational Controversy: Anna Julia Cooper’s Vision of Resolution,” NWSA Journal 11(3) (Autumn, 1999).
  • Alison Stewart, First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2013).
  • Mary Church Terrell, A Colored Woman in a White World (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2005).
  • Darren Walker, “Giving Back is a Birthright,” Time (June 30, 2016).

5 thoughts on “Julius Rosenwald was not a Hero

  1. This is a ridiculous article and position. JR was a Jewish man working in the North and South were Jewish were hated and discriminated against.They fled Europe because they were being murder and robbed on an regular basis. My family came from the same area that the Jews were persecuted, we fled for the same reasons. JR needed to balance what he could do to what was needed. If he approached it to broadly nothing would have been gained. Your article even states the immense advancements in Black students. Your article quotes some most well respected blacks and how they benifited from JR works. You don’t compare one persons works to another to some how Elevate one over the other. That is divisive and counterproductive. Remember this JR didn’t have a Dog in this fight, as you repeatly stated his was a White Man. He took a big risk to his life by working to improve Blacks students education. If he took your approach, his efforts would have been short-lived before there were lasting benefits. They are all Heros.


  2. Heroic. That is for each reader to decide. A game changer, certainly. Our heroes are neither more or less than any of us . . . just people. Rosenwald had the resources to improve the lot of untold thousands of people. Where I live, the Rosenwald School is still remembered and appreciated. Integration of our public schools would have been a loftier goal and a big lift during the Jim Crow days. Frankly, I am more concerned with what I perceive as a return to segregation in our public schools. I believe that is, in part, caused by the proliferation of many charter schools and the growing number of states that give people vouchers to attend private schools.


  3. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary includes four different definitions for the word “hero.’” The most applicable definition for the story of Julius Rosenwald is “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities.” There are also definitions related to “warriors” and those who show great “courage,” which may be less applicable to Rosenwald’s achievements, and are more applicable to others who faced more personal “danger” in their actions. However, all of these are definitions of a “hero.” When it comes to support for the advancement of Black Americans in the Jim Crow era of the early 20th century, Julius Rosenwald’s achievements rise to the definition of “noble” and therefor heroic.

    The most popular and far-reaching aspect of Rosenwald’s philanthropy for the advancement of Black Americans was the rural schools program. The magnitude of this program (5,000+ schools), which served 35% of America’s black children and resulted in improved school attendance are all well documented. But this is only part of the Rosenwald legacy. He was also an early supporter of the NAACP, which had early roots in Chicago. He was a supporter of urban YMCAs for Black Americans, which were constructed in 23 cities across America, before the Rosenwald Schools program. He was a trustee of the Tuskeegee Institute and became a personal friend of Booker T. Washington, who would stay at the Rosenwald family home when he visited Chicago. The Rosenwald School initiative was an offshoot of a program that started under Booker T. Washington at the Tuskeegee Institute, but grew exponentially when taken over by the Rosenwald Foundation.

    The premise of the “not a hero” argument is Julius Rosenwald’s failure to challenge institutional racism and the political system that supported it. This was no small task. The United States Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1898) made separation and segregation the law of the land. If people had to fight school segregation directly, while Plessy was the law, there were no heroes in Rosenwald’s lifetime, not until the NAACP lawyers began in the 1930s with a slow and strategic challenge to segregation. If Rosenwald had chosen chose to fight segregation directly, while Plessy was the law, there would have been no schools; the “solid South” would have prevented schools that challenged segregation.

    Failure to address the structural racism in America was also a criticism of Booker T. Washington and a source of some friction between him and W.E.B. DuBois, who later softened his criticism. Rosenwald and Washington found common ground on the goal of educational advancement for Black Americans. Through their collaboration, thousands of new school buildings rose across the south, and the Tuskeegee Institute trained the future school teachers.

    The legacy of Julius Rosenwald through his Foundation took a different course starting in 1928 as the Rosenwald schools program was ending. The Foundation started a new Fellowship program, with grants for academic, research, and cultural activities. The list of Rosenwald Scholars is a virtual “who’s who” of Black American scientists, educators and artists of this era. The total funding for the scholars program was almost equal to that of the Rosenwald Schools programs

    Julius Rosenwald’s support for improved educational opportunities for Black Americans during the Jim Crow era was unequalled by any other American and stands today as a “noble achievement.” The magnitude and impact of his philanthropy has stood the test of time. He is an American hero in his “noble achievements.” His legacy has been largely forgotten because of his humility and his decision to “give while you live” and to “sunset” his foundation. A new effort to create a Julius Rosenwald and Rosenwald Schools National Historical Park is a major step in recognizing his legacy and inspiring future generations.


  4. JR worked within the constraints (racism, segregation, bigotry, Jim Crow, etc…) he had to get schools built!

    If he had taken the steps that the courageous women mentioned did, the schools would not have been built,or if they had, more than likely most would have been burnt down!

    Industrial training was a good thing for most Blacks in that era that would have to live under Jim Crow.

    Some of those students learned more than that and used it as a spring board to become college educated individuals. I have family members, and others, that used that rudimentary education beginning to later become teachers, college professors, business owners, doctors, fighter pilots, war heroes,other professionals, or just good community people, both men and women.

    Whatever title you want to give J.R., is not as important as the outcome of his efforts!

    I am glad that J.R., and other White philantrophists did what they did, irregardless of their motivation, or thinking of that era.


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