The Magazine

Houses of Learning

One man’s vision meets another man’s philanthropy.

Feb 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 23 • By DAVID G. DALIN
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In this fascinating book Stephanie Deutsch recounts the story of the extraordinary friendship and philanthropic partnership between Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, the vocational training school for black teachers that he had established in Alabama in 1881, and Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and one of the preeminent Jewish philanthropists in America.

Photo of Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington

Rosenwald had been born in 1862 in Springfield, Illinois, where his parents had settled and opened a clothing store shortly after emigrating from Germany. In 1895, after having worked in the family’s wholesale clothing business for more than a decade, Rosenwald purchased a 25 percent stake in the company of one of his local customers, a small mail-order house by the name of Sears, Roebuck, becoming the president in 1908. Under his direction Sears, Roebuck and Co. became the largest mail-order company in the world, and by 1925, Rosenwald’s personal holdings had risen from $37,500 to a then-prodigious $150 million. While Rosenwald’s accomplishments at Sears showed him to be a pioneer of modern business, he was also a trailblazer in philanthropy, devoting as much energy to giving away his money as he had to acquiring it. Like his contemporary Andrew Carnegie, Rosenwald saw himself as a public servant, the temporary steward of wealth entrusted to him for the purpose of bettering the world. To this end, he gave millions to the University of Chicago and the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, and to a host of Jewish organizations throughout the country.

A staunch Republican, Rosenwald also contributed generously to the campaigns of every GOP presidential candidate of his time. As a friend of William Howard Taft, and one of his most loyal supporters within the Jewish community, “there had even been rumors that if Taft won reelection in 1912, he would name Julius to his cabinet as secretary of commerce.” In February 1912, recounts Deutsch, Rosenwald was summoned by Taft to a meeting in Washington and, after dinner, invited to spend “a night at the White House as the guest of the president of the United States.” Rosenwald was the first American Jew to be an overnight guest at the White House.

Booker Taliaferro Washington, born into slavery in 1856, had by the 1880s become a nationally known and respected educator, whose gradualist approach to racial equality had won him wide acceptance and respect. The school he established in 1881 in Tuskegee had rapidly become a national center for agricultural and vocational training, and by 1900 “was one of the largest educational institutions in the South, one of the few to offer coeducation.” In 1901, Washington was invited by President Theodore Roosevelt (who would later serve on the Tuskegee board) to join him for dinner at the White House.

After reading Washington’s much-admired autobiography, Up from Slavery, Rosenwald was anxious to meet Washington, who was anxious to meet Rosenwald as well. As Deutsch notes:

Washington regularly cultivated wealthy people who might donate money to Tuskegee Institute. .  .  .  Rosenwald was such a man, extraordinarily rich and interested in using his money to promote the well-being of African Americans, though aware that he himself knew little about how best to do so.

The two met on May 18, 1911, when Washington came to Chicago to raise money for Tuskegee. Rosenwald had invited 45 prominent Chicagoans to join him for lunch to meet Washington “at Chicago’s elegant, new, lakefront hotel, the Blackstone.” The man the luncheon honored, writes Deutsch, “was the hotel’s first black guest.” In introducing Washington, Rosenwald called him a “wise, statesmanlike leader. .  .  . He is helping his own race to attain the high art of self-help and self-dependence and he is helping the white race to learn that opportunity and obligation go hand in hand. .  .  . Happy the nation which .  .  . knows and honors a Washington, whether he be George or Booker!”

From this first meeting Rosenwald and Washington became fast friends. Firmly convinced that charity would not ameliorate black poverty, but that vocational training and higher education could, Rosenwald passionately supported Washington’s philosophy of self-help for blacks and accepted Washington’s invitation to serve as a Tuskegee trustee. But his support for Tuskegee was not confined to mere checkbook philanthropy: Rosenwald became intimately involved in the workings of Tuskegee Institute, making annual pilgrimages to south Alabama in a private railroad car, and bringing along a sizable contingent of relatives, friends, and potential benefactors.