Julius Rosenwald, the Sears Co-Founder Who Pioneered Opportunities for Black-Americans

By Lyle Weischwill | Feb. 08, 2023 12:56 pm PST

There were over 5000 Rosenwald Schools in the South that paved the way for black students for generations including Civil Rights pioneer John Lewis. Here is the remarkable story of Julius Rosenwald and how his unlikely friendship with Booker T. Washington led to a movement of opportunity.

Starting in 1913, these two innovative leaders embarked on a mission to build black schools in segregated southern states that were equal to white schools.

During Black History Month 2023, we’re celebrating these impactful leaders who selflessly served African-American communities in the South during troubled times.

Who was Julius Rosenwald?

Julius Rosenwald was born August 12, 1862, in Springfield, Ill. His father, Samuel, had traveled to Springfield, Illinois several years earlier to run a clothing store for his wife’s family.

Even though Julius Rosenwald would eventually run Sears and amass a vast fortune, he never finished high school—dropping out of the Springfield High School after finishing the 10th grade in 1879. He moved to New York that year to work in his uncles’ clothing manufacturing firm as a stock clerk, bringing home $5 per week.

Rosenwald gained experience in business and in 1885, he teamed up with his cousin, Julius Weil, to manufacture men’s clothing. Coincidentally, one of the company’s clients was Richard Sears, who ordered men’s clothing for sale in his catalogs.

In 1895, Rosenwald became a partner in Sears. He brought a rational management philosophy to Richard Sears’ well-tuned sales instincts. From 1895 to 1907, annual sales at Sears skyrocketed from $750,000 to $50 million.

Image of Julius Rosenwald

In 1908, Rosenwald was named president of Sears when Richard Sears resigned. In his first 5 years as president, sales and profits nearly doubled at Sears—establishing Rosenwald as a highly successful business leader. He continued to excel as president until 1924, when he became chairman of the board, a position he held until his death in 1932.

As his success grew with Sears, Rosenwald became wealthy and was began to focus on philanthropy as well as business. Over the course of his life, Rosenwald donated 10’s of millions of dollars to public schools, colleges, universities, museums, Jewish charities and black institutions.

Julius Rosenwald Meets Booker T. Washington

In 1910, Rosenwald began to understand in the extreme social challenges of African Americans after reading two books given to him by his friend Paul Sachs, a senior partner at Goldman Sachs.

  • Booker T. Washington’s autobiography Up from Slavery describing his life and struggles as a black man in America.
  • J.G. Brook’s An American Citizen, a biography of William Baldwin, the philanthropist and advocate for black education.

Inspired by these books and encouraged by friends, Rosenwald began to provide matching grants to build YMCA’s for African-Americans in Chicago and other cities across the nation.

In May of 1911, Booker T. Washington was the keynote speaker at the 53rd anniversary celebration of the Chicago YMCA. As part of that celebration, Rosenwald hosted a luncheon of the top Chicago business leaders to meet Washington. After that luncheon, Washington invited Rosenwald to join the Tuskegee Institute board of trustees. Rosenwald initially declined the invitation to join the board, but he agreed to visit the Tuskegee Institute.

After visiting the school, Rosenwald said “I was astonished at the progressiveness in the schools. I don’t believe there is a white industrial school in America or anywhere that compares to Mr. Washington’s at Tuskegee.”

When Washington invited Rosenwald to join the board after the visit, Rosenwald accepted and soon became a trustee of the Tuskegee Institute.

Rosenwald and Washington became close friends as they raised funds for the Tuskegee Institute. Their bond of friendship became stronger as they worked together to help fund additional black schools in the Segregated South.

These two leaders went on to help establish the Rosenwald Schools.

Rosenwald Schools

Although not well-known today, Julius Rosenwald’s greatest contribution along with Booker T. Washington was the creation of over 5000 black schools in the Segregated South affectionately called the Rosenwald schools.

The first Rosenwald School was built in Loachapoka, Alabama in 1913. The historical plaque commemorating the site reads:

On this site once stood the first of over 5,300 Rosenwald schools for black children built between 1913 and 1932. The schools were started in a collaboration between Julius Rosenwald, CEO of Sears, Roebuck and Company and Booker T. Washington, Principal of Tuskegee Institute. The dedication was held on May 18, 1913. Rosenwald grew up poor and believed in self-help; consequently, he paid for only part of the expenses to build the schools. The rest was to be raised by community members, both black and white. All of the schools were built from a selection of plans designed by an architect at Tuskegee Institute.

Image the first Rosenwald School

After the first Rosenwald schools were successfully built in Alabama, thousands of communities across the South eagerly began building their own schools under the administration of the Tuskegee Institute. The new schools made quality education accessible to black children throughout the South.

In a dark period of our American history when “separate but equal” was the law of the land, Julius Rosenthal and Booker T. Washington overcame many obstacles to help black children get equal opportunities for the education that they craved.

During this year’s Black History Month, we salute these strong leaders who passionately helped those less fortunate and oppressed in our society.

At Sears, we continue to strive for diversity, inclusion and unity in our company culture. If you’re looking to grow, or even begin your career in the repair service industry, join our Sears Home Services team. We’re hiring Sears Technicians and have additional openings for support staff as we continue to expand our business.

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