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'Rosenwald' provokes gratitude for the deeds of its subject

Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears, Roebuck & Co., was one of the leading philanthropists in the United States in the early 20th century. The dutiful documentary 'Rosenwald' aims to remind viewers of his deeds.

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Julius Rosenwald with students from a Rosenwald school. For movie review of 'Rosenwald.'

Courtesy Fisk University/John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library/Special Collection

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Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears, Roebuck & Co., was one of the leading philanthropists in the United States in the early 20th century, and yet his place in history has been largely overlooked – a mistake Aviva Kempner’s dutiful documentary “Rosenwald” aims to correct. It’s a worthy mission. Rosenwald, following the Jewish concept of tikkun olam – “repairing the world” – partnered with Booker T. Washington to create more than 5,300 schools in the Jim Crow South. (Rosenwald, the son of an immigrant peddler, never finished high school.) One in 3 black children was estimated to have attended a Rosenwald school in the pre-civil rights era. 

He also, through challenge grants, built YMCA facilities and other housing accepting of blacks, and created a fund granting fellowships of as much as $2,000 to black artists and intellectuals, as well as poor white Southerners. The film rolls out the litany of recipients: Gordon Parks Jr., Ralph Ellison, John Hope Franklin, Langston Hughes, Katherine Dunham, Woody Guthrie, and many more. More than awe, the film provokes gratitude for what this man did. Grade: B+ (This film is not rated.)

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