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  • Writer's pictureKaren L

Susan Pops Her Head Up

My friend, Susan, who died in 2017, much too young from cancer, would speak out. Recently, I watched a documentary about Julius Rosenwald directed by Aviva Kempner. Julius Rosenwald was born in the United States to German Jewish immigrant parents in 1862. His parents followed the typical trajectory from peddler to clothier. After being apprenticed to his uncles in New York City, Julius and his brother started a clothing manufacturing business. Julius, an excellent entrepeneur, eventually partnered with Richard Sears in the Sears Roebuck Company. The rest is history as the Sears Roebuck Company grew, becoming a household name and serving a practical, often necessary role for Americans. Rosenwald was determined to help those in need, a Jewish value he learned from his rabbi. Mr. Rosenwald worked and lived during the Progressive Era, a time when society valued and encouraged philanthropy. The Progressive Era, much like our 1960's-1970's, saw the likes of Louis Brandeis, W.E.B. DuBois, Upton Sinclair, and Jane Addams, to name a few well-known philanthropists. Julius Rosenwald, encouraged by Booker T. Washington, agreed to serve on the Board of Directors of the Tuskegee Institute. Recognizing that the plight of African Americans in the South was dire, Rosenwald assisted small communities in the deep South to build schools/community centers. He provided funds, insisting that the towns match the donations with local financial, moral, and physical support. The schools uplifted young black persons through education--academic and practical--for several generations. The 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. the Board of Education, resulted in the desegragation of schools. The Rosenwald Schools exemplified separate but (not) equal opportunities, so prevalent in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Therefore, the schools were deemed illegal, though they continued in parts of the South, due to noncompliance with the Supreme Court decision. Rosenwald's actions demonstrated a fine example of Tikkun Olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world, and he committed a true Mitzvah, as he chose to remain out of the limelight while doing good. Julius Rosenwald's support enabled the expansion of the YMCA in large cities and fellowships for young artists of all races. So why would Susan pop her head up? Why would she speak out? She reminded me not to be complacent. I know enough history to understand the context of Rosenwald's charity, the Progressive Era. Of course, the former students of the schools he supported would be nostalgic and have fond memories of their education, quite precious during the Jim Crow era. Except what about the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of the students? What are their thoughts about separate schools, fellowships, and opportunities, existing alongside but not within mainstream society? I learned many years ago, that African Americans refuse to be treated as children or uninformed citizens. African Americans prefer self determination in lieu of paternalism. What struck me after watching the film was the awful state of education I witnessed in my life long after Rosenwald's time? How do the Rosenwald schools relate to tracking of Black students, de facto segregation, bussing, standardized testing, affirmative action, and now the inclusion of critical race theory in the curriculum? The Rosenwald schools reinforced the status quo of racism by providing separate but not equal education. This was not Rosenwald's fault; however, it must be said. Certainly, the education of all students of color improved during the 20th century. Progress continues, albeit with strong protests from some white parents and politicians. Backlash against improvements in the education of all students, especially those of color, occurred cyclically in the 20th century; we now find ourselves in such a period in the 21st century. Kempner's movie and a discussion my synagogue held with Dorothy Canter did not include a reckoning of a wider and longer perspective. Yes, Julius Rosenwald was an exemplary American Jewish citizen. And yes, the schools still standing should become historical landmarks. (Some are, I believe.) Nevertheless, we should ask critical questions--with a historical viewpoint-- to advance contemporary education for students, including those who are minorities.

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