The Legacy of Julius Rosenwald and the Decline of Sears, an American Giant
At the very end of December, 2011, when the Sears Holding Company announced that up to 120 of its stores (both Sears Roebuck and Kmart) would be closing due to disappointing sales, the contrast with the spectacular career of Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) could scarcely have been greater. Born a century and a half ago, he was the most significant figure in the history of what was once the largest retail establishment on the planet. He was also among the nation’s most imaginative philanthropists. Because he was so resourceful in making money, and then because he was so gifted in disbursing it, he deserves to be far better known than he is.
Jewishness helps account for the near-oblivion into which Rosenwald’s name has sunk. Though he did not found the mail-order house of Sears, Roebuck, he served as its president for most of the first third of the last century. Two million of the company’s famous catalogs were typically mailed out every year, each about a thousand pages in thickness, and with many of them in full color. Yet from 1909, right after Rosenwald became president of the company, until 1924, when he resigned, the introductory letters that were sent to potential customers along with the catalogs were unsigned. Nor did his name appear in the catalog, as though to disguise the identity of the CEO of a corporation with eight thousand employees at its Chicago headquarters.
Why such anonymity? The answer—admittedly conjectural—has been provided by his grandson, who is, incidentally, the only biographer that Julius Rosenwald ever managed to attract. Peter M. Ascoli suspects that his grandfather feared the antisemitism of rural America, where his name might be bad for business. In the Chicago press, and even elsewhere, the president of Sears, Roebuck was publicly associated with Jewish causes. Rosenwald was an integral, unambivalent member of the Jewish community, locally as well as nationally. In 1906 he helped found the American Jewish Committee; two years later, when he became the president of Sears, Roebuck, he also became the president of the city’s Associated Jewish Charities. Rosenwald held that communal position until 1911, and then again from 1913 until 1917. His activities were reported in the Chicago’s Jewish press. But he presumably hoped that the farmers he wanted as customers would fail to notice such news stories.
Whatever the validity of his concerns, his company did as much as any retail business in the nation to help farmers and their families conquer the burden of solitude. More than any other business (except for the Ford Motor Company), Sears, Roebuck enabled a predominantly rural nation to connect with the rising influence of industrial and urban ways of life and ultimately with a cosmopolitan modernity. No wonder then that, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was asked during the Second World War which American book he would like to see distributed in the Soviet Union, he did not nominate the Federalist Papers or Moby-Dick or even his own public papers. Instead the leader who listed “freedom from want”—as one of the Four Freedoms that the Allies were fighting for—proposed the Sears, Roebuck catalog.
Enormous wealth had failed to immunize Julius Rosenwald from bigotry, or at least from an awareness of a blot on democratic ideals. Perhaps his capacity for empathy might have sprung from an appreciation of the sting of prejudice. But whatever the roots of Rosenwald’s special philanthropic commitments, his interest in enhancing black education was neither casual nor superficial. He served on the board of the Tuskegee Institute, and Booker T. Washington not only stayed in Rosenwald’s home when visiting Chicago but also spoke at his synagogue, Temple Sinai. Other black institutions benefiting from Rosenwald’s philanthropy besides Tuskegee were Spelman College and Morehouse College in Atlanta, Fisk University and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, and Dillard University in New Orleans.
In 1915, the year that Booker T. Washington died, nine out of ten American Negroes were living in the South, for which Rosenwald was providing matching funds for the erection of school buildings. Local blacks were expected to put up the rest of the funding; they were thus not to consider themselves merely as beneficiaries of a millionaire’s largesse. Their dignity was respected. Eventually over 5,300 such schools were constructed. In the course of two decades, Rosenwald was responsible for having built more schools for black pupils than had existed in the South when his program had been inaugurated, in a region that showed pathetically limited public commitment to black education.
He also established a family foundation that helped finance some of the cases of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that were later bundled together into the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). When Rosenwald died exactly eight decades ago, the executive secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, announced that “no name is more revered and deeply loved among American Negroes than that of Julius Rosenwald.” The editor of the NAACP’s magazine, the Crisis, was more pointed in his eulogy. “As a Jew, Julius Rosenwald did not have to be initiated into the methods of race prejudice,” W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “and his philanthropic work was a crushing arraignment of the American white Christians.” Rosenwald converted charity into a kind of criticism “of our racial democracy.” As for the schools he subsidized, Du Bois added that “the South accepted his gift effusively, and never even to this day has apparently grasped the failure of democracy which permitted an individual of a despised race to do for the sovereign states of a great nation that which they had neither the decency nor justice to do for themselves.”
Very few businessmen have been as shrewd in making money; very few philanthropists have been as visionary in spending it.
Stephen J. Whitfield holds the Max Richter Chair in American Civilization at Brandeis University and is the author of In Search of American Jewish Culture (University Press of New England, 1999).