Re­mem­ber­ing ‘Black Amer­ica’s silent part­ner’ at Sears

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - PERSPECTIVE - Clarence Page Clarence Page, a mem­ber of the Tri­bune Ed­i­to­rial Board, blogs at www.chicago tri­­page. cpage@chicagotri­ Twit­ter @cp­time

Blacks and Jews need to get along, my fa­ther used to say, or we bring joy to those who have nei­ther group’s in­ter­ests in mind.

That use­ful bit of wis­dom came to mind as syn­a­gogues across the coun­try in­vited guests to join them this week­end. Some would light 13 can­dles in mem­ory of two tragedies: The 11 shot and killed at the Tree of Life syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh on Oct. 27 and the two African-Amer­i­cans shot and killed two days ear­lier at a Jef­fer­son­town, Ky., su­per­mar­ket.

In­deed, the two events were por­traits of how hate can op­er­ate with­out much dis­tinc­tion be­tween tar­geted groups.

“All Jews must die!” wit­nesses say the Pitts­burgh gun­man yelled as he en­tered the syn­a­gogue dur­ing Satur­day morn­ing ser­vices.

“Whites don’t kill whites,” the Ken­tucky gun­man said, ac­cord­ing to re­ports, as he fled past a white man af­ter killing a black man who was shop­ping with his grand­son for school sup­plies.

It turns out that, had the Ken­tucky gun­man suc­ceeded in his at­tempt to break through the locked front door at a nearby pre­dom­i­nantly black church, where a small group was meet­ing, there might have been a re­play of the 2015 mas­sacre of nine black wor­ship­pers at Emanuel AME Church in Charles­ton, S.C., by an avowed white su­prem­a­cist.

Yet, in con­sid­er­ing where we need to go from here, I found some guid­ance in an­other recent bad-news story: the an­nounced bank­ruptcy of Chicagob­ased re­tail gi­ant Sears.

What, I won­dered, would the late Sears chief Julius Rosen­wald think of these recent tragedies?

Rosen­wald was the businessman and phi­lan­thropist best known not only for lead­ing the birth and growth of 125year-old Sears, Roe­buck & Co., but also for es­tab­lish­ing the Rosen­wald Fund. Among other great con­tri­bu­tions, it do­nated mil­lions in match­ing funds to sup­port the ed­u­ca­tion of AfricanAmer­i­can children in the ru­ral South, where lo­cal schools for black children un­der Jim Crow seg­re­ga­tion were un­der­funded or nonex­is­tent.

In 1912, Rosen­wald, a child of Jewish im­mi­grants from Ger­many, col­lab­o­rated with Booker T. Wash­ing­ton, the era’s most prom­i­nent black con­ser­va­tive leader and founder of the Tuskegee In­sti­tute, where Rosen­wald was a trustee.

Robert Wood­son, head of the Wash­ing­ton-based Wood­son Cen­ter, which works with grass­roots com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions na­tion­wide, pro­posed in The Hill, a Capi­tol Hill news­pa­per, the day be­fore the Ken­tucky shoot­ings that Rosen­wald be re­mem­bered in the Smithsonian’s Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture, with an ex­hibit for the world to see how well groups can work to­gether to solve prob­lems in­stead of cre­at­ing them.

“The won­der­ful thing about Rosen­wald,” Wood­son told me af­ter the pre­vi­ous week’s massacres, “in­stead of in­sist­ing that he knew best, was his re­spect for Wash­ing­ton and (his) to­tal com­mit­ment to re­ceiv­ing Wash­ing­ton’s coun­sel as a peer.”

In­stead of pay­ing the to­tal cost of pre­fab­ri­cated homes and school build­ings from Sears, as Rosen­wald orig­i­nally wanted, he fol­lowed Wash­ing­ton’s plan to dou­ble and triple pro­duc­tion by match­ing Rosen­wald’s fund­ing with lo­cal con­tri­bu­tions from churches, or­ga­ni­za­tions and in­di­vid­u­als, in­clud­ing Tuskegee fac­ulty and stu­dents in ar­chi­tec­ture and build­ing trades.

The re­sult was al­most 5,000 new “Rosen­wald Schools” for children in 15 states in two decades of con­struc­tion — in­clud­ing, as I dis­cov­ered while re­search­ing Rosen­thal, the schools that al­most all of my Alabama cousins at­tended. Thanks, J.R.!

“The hor­rors that are due to race prej­u­dice come home to the Jew more force­fully than to oth­ers of the white race,” Rosen­wald once wrote, ac­cord­ing to his grand­son and bi­og­ra­pher Peter As­coli, “on ac­count of the cen­turies of per­se­cu­tion which they have suf­fered and still suf­fer.”

Film­maker Aviva Kemp­ner, writer and pro­ducer of the 2015 doc­u­men­tary “Rosen­wald: A Re­mark­able Story of a Jewish Part­ner­ship with African Amer­i­can Com­mu­ni­ties,” told me Rosen­wald was in­spired by faith in two Jewish ideals: “tzedakah,” He­brew for char­ity, and “tikkun olam,” re­pair­ing the world, two prin­ci­ples still worth keep­ing alive.

Rosen­wald, as what a Chicago De­fender head­line called “Black Amer­ica’s silent part­ner,” did much more, in­clud­ing the build­ing of black YMCAs and YWCAs and pro­vid­ing foun­da­tion grants to black artists and writ­ers, in­clud­ing opera singer Mar­ian An­der­son, poet Langston Hughes, pho­tog­ra­pher Gor­don Parks and writer James Bald­win.

But his life also is worth re­mem­ber­ing and em­u­lat­ing as a model of an en­dur­ing Amer­i­can ideal: that peo­ple from dif­fer­ent races, re­li­gions and cul­tures can work to­gether for the com­mon good, mak­ing Amer­ica’s di­ver­sity our strength.


Syn­a­gogues have in­vited guests to help them honor 11 Jewish peo­ple killed in Pitts­burgh and two black peo­ple in Ken­tucky.


Julius Rosen­wald helped lead Sears and en­abled African-Amer­i­cans’ ed­u­ca­tion.

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