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The Businessman Philanthropist You Haven't Heard of Who Shaped Chicago

Daniel Hautzinger
Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry
Unlike other philanthropists of the age, Julius Rosenwald did not want his name on one of the most significant institutions he built, the Museum of Science and Industry. Photo: Jeremy Atherton/Creative Commons

Rockefeller, Carnegie, Field, Shedd: these tycoons are well-remembered in part because of the philanthropic efforts emblazoned with their names. But Rosenwald? While no edifice or charity bears his name, Julius Rosenwald was one of the greatest – and, apparently, humblest – philanthropists of the age.

Rosenwald’s name isn’t even on the business, Sears, that he helped make extraordinarily successful. Born in Springfield, Illinois to German-Jewish immigrant shopkeepers in 1862, he moved to New York City at the age of 16 to work as a stock boy in his uncle’s clothing business. Six years later, he started his own clothing firm with his brother, but there was an economic recession and business was slow – until Rosenwald moved to Chicago. He opened another firm there in 1885, and began to prosper.

As Rosenwald was achieving success as a businessman, another company was growing. At about the same time as Rosenwald was starting his career, Richard Sears moved his watch-selling business from Minneapolis to Chicago; by 1895, he had transformed the company into a mail-order firm. His watchmaker partner Alvah Roebuck was retiring due to ill health, and Sears asked a businessman named Aaron Nussbaum to replace him. Nussbaum agreed, on the condition that could also bring on his brother-in-law Julius Rosenwald as a partner. And that was the beginning of Sears’s ascent to its status as one of Chicago’s leading companies.

Philanthropist and Sears executive Julius RosenwaldRosenwald helped make Sears one of Chicago's leading companies, but also helped build institutions and schools across the country.Sears was an excellent salesman, but Rosenwald brought organizational brilliance to the fledgling mail-order firm. His merchandising experience and logistical skills helped create an infrastructure that allowed Sears to deliver everything from clothing to furniture across the country. When Rosenwald joined the company, it was worth a bit less than one million dollars. Twelve short years later, in 1908, it was valued at around forty million dollars. (That success lasted a long time, but not up to the present day: Sears filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.)

Needless to say, Rosenwald was making a fortune. But, like other massively wealthy businessmen of the era who subscribed to Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic notion of the “Gospel of Wealth,” he felt a duty to donate portions of his money for the good of society. Rosenwald was spurred in part by the commitment to social justice preached by his rabbi, Emil Hirsch of the Chicago Sinai Congregation.

Rosenwald first turned his charitable attention upon his own community, helping to provide social services to the tens of thousands of newly arrived Jewish immigrants in Chicago who had fled persecution in Eastern Europe. Rosenwald underwrote the mortgage on a building for the Chicago Hebrew Institute, which provided education and other services to newcomers, and in 1923 spearheaded the merger of aid associations that supported different elements of the Jewish community. He became the first president of the resulting organization, now the Jewish United Fund.

Rosenwald was not insular in his philanthropy. He saw parallels between the struggles of Jewish Americans and African Americans, and he began contributing to the welfare of African Americans in 1910. Leaders in Chicago’s black community had asked him to help build a YMCA that would serve their community (other YMCAs in the city forbade African Americans from using them). Rosenwald decided to up the ante: he offered $25,000 to any city that could raise $75,000 towards a YMCA, in a new kind of giving, the challenge grant. He eventually helped establish twenty-five YMCAs and YWCAs across the country, including the Wabash Avenue Y in Chicago.

He also invested in expanding educational opportunities for African Americans, just as he had for immigrant Jewish Chicagoans. (His interest in education was also evidenced when he had Sears buy the Encyclopaedia Britannica to save it from bankruptcy.) On his 50th birthday, in 1912, he gave away almost $700,000 to various causes, including Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington used some of the money to found schools in nearby rural areas to provide access to education for impoverished African Americans living there. Inspired by the idea, Rosenwald carried it further, once again offering challenge grants to build schools in underserved, primarily black rural areas. Between 1913 and 1931, more than 5,000 such “Rosenwald Schools” were created throughout the South. And he aided African Americans seeking higher education as well, through scholarships for artists and intellectuals. Writer Ralph Ellison and singer Marian Anderson were among the many people who benefited from a Rosenwald-endowed scholarship.

Rosenwald Court Apartments. Photo: Rosenwald CourtsRosenwald built one of the first housing projects in the country, in Bronzeville. Photo: Rosenwald Courts

Back in Chicago, Rosenwald established one of the country’s first housing projects, buying six acres in Bronzeville in 1928 to construct a project meant for middle-class African Americans. Nat King Cole, Gwendolyn Brooks, Joe Louis, and Quincy Jones all lived in “the Rosenwald,” which reopened in 2016 as the Rosenwald Court Apartments.

Unlike those apartments, the most prominent institution Rosenwald helped build does not bear his name. After observing his son’s enthusiasm in a Munich science museum in 1911, Rosenwald determined to bring a similar institution to Chicago. Such a museum could inspire innovation in its visitors, which could lead to new technologies or inventions that then improved people’s lives – Rosenwald’s goal in all his philanthropy. He ended up giving three million dollars to found the Museum of Science and Industry, but insisted that it not be named after him – it should belong to everybody.

Rosenwald never saw the museum completed; he died in 1932, a year before it opened to the public. Over the course of his life, he gave away $63 million in philanthropy. And yet few people know his legacy, or even his name – which may be just how he wanted it.