During the screening of the documentary Rosenwald at the Michigan Theater on September 24, 2015, one person after another testified to how they had benefited from the generosity of businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald.
Rosenwald, who helped lead Sears, Roebuck to great prominence in the early 20th century, shared the blessings of his wealth with many people. These recipients included black schoolchildren in the rural south and black creative artists like Langston Hughes, Marian Anderson, and James Baldwin.
In some of these efforts, Rosenwald worked with black leader Booker T. Washington to help many people help themselves, particularly through education in schools that the students helped build.
For Rosenwald, who lived from 1862 to 1932, it was the continuation of a philosophy of investing in people. The business version of this philosophy was described by Peter F. Drucker in his 1954 book The Practice of Management:
It was Julius Rosenwald who made a business enterprise out of Sears in the ten years between 1895 when he took control, and 1905 when the Chicago mail-order plant was opened…He built the productive human organization. He early gave to management people the maximum of authority and full responsibility for results. Later he gave every employee an ownership stake in the company bought for him out of profits.
Rosenwald is thus the father not only of Sears, Roebuck but of the “distribution revolution” which has made over twentieth century America and which is so vital a factor in our economic growth.
Rosenwald was directed by Aviva Kempner, who introduced the Michigan Theater screening of the film, and answered questions afterward. Kempner is a graduate of the University of Michigan who was making a kind of homecoming to the Michigan Theater, where she sold tickets 45 years ago.
Kempner said that her 12-year odyssey to make Rosenwald was motivated by her interest in the relationships between Jews and blacks. She mentioned her close friendship with Julian Bond, a major participant in the film who recently died.
Kempner’s other films include The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, which screened at the Detroit Film Theatre in March and April of 2000. She jokingly described herself as the “Ken Burns of Judaica.”
During the question and answer session, a white woman noted that very few black people attended the Michigan screening of Rosenwald, even though it dealt greatly with the experiences of black people in the United States in the 20th century.
Those black attendees included a UM graduate student who talked about her doctoral research of what were called “Rosenwald schools, ” and two older women who talked thoughtfully and lovingly about their attendance of those schools in Alabama.
Kempner noted that there would be screenings in the Detroit area the next weekend. The Michigan will show the movie again on September 30.
A spirit of community and goodwill pervaded the evening. Many people in attendance knew each other, leading to lively and spontaneous conversations in the auditorium before the film, and in the Grand Foyer afterwards.
As I walked outside into a comfortable early fall evening, I held the door for a woman with a walker. She thanked me, and mentioned how she had enjoyed Rosenwald and learned something new that evening.
Copyright 2015 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.