The Dyett Hunger Strikers and Julius Rosenwald

Rosenwald was a corporate magnate at Sears Roebuck in Chicago. But his greatest contribution to American life was as a philanthropist. Rosenwald seeded the development of more than 5,300 schools in rural African-American communities throughout the South.
09/02/2015 01:32 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2016

The hunger strikers at Dyett High School were on my mind this past weekend as I watched Aviva Kempner's new documentary film about Julius Rosenwald.

Rosenwald was a corporate magnate at Sears Roebuck in Chicago. But his greatest contribution to American life was as a philanthropist. Rosenwald seeded the development of more than 5,300 schools in rural African-American communities throughout the South during the early part of the 20th century.

Booker T. Washington's autobiography "Up From Slavery" and "An American Citizen," a biography of William H. Baldwin Jr., a white industrialist who became a leading advocate for African American education in the late 19th century inspired Rosenwald. The ideas in these books and the principles of his Jewish faith, tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (justice), drove his giving.

Rosenwald was a creative philanthropist whose funding strategy has relevance today. He did not just give money. He expected that the African-American community would match his contribution and that so too would local white school boards.

Rosenwald understood, in part through his relationship with Booker T. Washington, that the community needed to have ownership of its schools; that without such ownership schools would not attain their educational goals nor would they flourish assets for the entire community. He wanted to nurture self-reliance and community pride, and his photo often hung between those of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass at the schools.

Generating a match from the African-American community was no small feat in those days when poverty, segregation and violence were the norm for Black people in the South. But that didn't stop those communities. Individual giving, community events, and often sweat equity enabled many very poor communities to build schools in their communities. Once successfully built, Kempner's documentary tells us that in too many instances these schools had to be built again when they were burned down by the KKK and others. The struggle was unremitting.

From 1915 to 1932, 660,000 rural southern African-American students benefited from this initiative including many luminaries such as Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, family members of Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee and Julian Bond, and numerous African-American academic, business and community leaders.

And for those who would ask if the Rosenwald schools raised student achievement, it has, according to the 2009 Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago report. "Access to Rosenwald schools increased average Black scores by about 0.25 standard deviations adding to the existing literature showing that interventions can reduce the racial gap in cognitive skills. In the longer run, exposure to the schools raised the wages of Blacks that remained in the South relative to Southern whites by about 35 percent. For blacks, the private rate of return for a year of additional schooling induced by Rosenwald was about 18 percent."

As I sat in the theater, I wondered what Julius Rosenwald would have to say about the hunger strikers at Dyett. No one can know for certain, but perhaps we can imagine a few questions that he might ask if he were alive today of city and school district leaders in the city where he made his fortune.

  1. How is the local community's voice heard in important decisions about our public schools?
  2. What role should the people whom you are trying to help have in creating the institutions designed to support them?
  3. How do community leaders and residents become active partners in the education of their children and the revitalization of their neighborhoods?
  4. Should our public school policies not take account of the historic role of schools as centers of their communities?
  5. How valuable is the social capital that comes from a committed, responsible and supportive community to the education of our young people?
  6. What responsibility do the many schools that no longer operate within neighborhood boundaries have to the neighborhoods in which they are located?

The convergence of the Dyett strike with the premier of the Rosenwald film requires that we ask these kinds of questions in Chicago and across the nation.

For more on Rosenwald's contribution read this Washington Post article.