The Man Who Built Sears & Roebuck Julius Rosenwald built Sears & Roebuck into a corporate power, then turned to philanthropy. His Rosenwald Schools educated African-American children throughout the rural South. Grandson, Peter Ascoli has written a biography.
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The Man Who Built Sears & Roebuck

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The Man Who Built Sears & Roebuck

The Man Who Built Sears & Roebuck

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Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have recently received admiring coverage about their decision to essentially combine their fortunes for philanthropy, in the Bill and Linda Gates Foundation. Whatever their giving does to affect history, it will be hard to exceed Julius Rosenwald.

One of the people who built Sears, Roebuck, Julius Rosenwald founded over 5,000 schools in the American South that essentially provided public education to African-Americans in a time when state governments did not. He built YMCAs around the country in which African-American could stay when hotels would not accept them.

He built Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, supported distinguished individual artists and scholars, including Marian Anderson, Ralph Ellison, Katherine Dunham and Ralph Bunche. But today it's hard to find his name on much more than his own simple gravestone in Chicago's Rosehill Cemetery. That's what Julius Rosenwald wanted.

Peter Ascoli has written the first biography of Julius Rosenwald to appear in half a century. It's called Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South. Mr. Ascoli is on the faculty of Spertus College in Chicago. He's also the grandson of Julius Rosenwald, and joins us from Chicago.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Professor PETER ASCOLI (Spertus College): It's a great pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Tell us about your grandfather. Son of German-Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Springfield and his father made uniforms for Union soldiers. How did he become part of Sears, Roebuck?

Prof. ASCOLI: Well, Sears used to send out ads without having any stock in hand, and he had advertised for very cheap men's suits, which was the business that Rosenwald was then in. And the response had been overwhelming, but he had no suits to offer. So he needed them immediately and Rosenwald was able to provide them.

SIMON: Julius Rosenwald essentially became the chief operating officer of Sears when he was, what, 33 years old?

Prof. ASCOLI: That is correct.

SIMON: What did he do to make Sears into - the moniker used to be America's Store - and the Sears catalogue, I believe, the most widely read publication in America?

Prof. ASCOLI: Well, when he arrived the place was pretty much in chaos. And what he did was to create system and order. Once an order was received, it was sent out within 24 hours. And he also was somebody who believed very strongly in truth in advertising, so eventually he built a laboratory which tested every single product in the Sears catalogue to make sure that it was being honestly represented. He also treated his employees very well.

SIMON: And when the stock market crash occurred in 1929, he used his own fortune to save the company and specifically jobs for employees.

Prof. ASCOLI: Well, he saved the company before, actually. In 1922, when there was a recession in America and Sears was in danger of going under, he gave the company $5 million of his own money and bought the land on which the Sears Roebuck plant stood, west of Chicago.

SIMON: He had advice about how to give his money away. From the first, he thought he had to have a philosophy. Right? Not just open an envelope and say, well, that sounds like a good program.

Prof. ASCOLI: That's right. He was really influenced very strongly by his Rabbi, Emil Hirsch, who was the great reform rabbi of his generation. And Hirsch really had a social conscience and believed that it was imperative for people of wealth to give back to society and to do so in a thoughtful manner. And Hirsch became really only the first of a series of advisers, including Jane Adams, Booker T. Washington.

And you can see by the end - certainly by the end of his life and probably many years before that, he comes forward as one of the most progressive Americans with regard to African-Americans, because he truly believed that blacks and whites were equal and should be treated as equal in America. And in the Jim Crow era of the '20s and '30s, this was regarded as positively crazy.

SIMON: And what did those 5,000 schools do?

Prof. ASCOLI: The 5,000 schools were built in rural areas. There were opportunities for African-Americans in cities, but in rural areas the opportunities were really small. And these schools gave generations of African-American children the chance at an education. They lasted all the way up until the civil rights era of the '60s.

SIMON: There were newspapers who - newspapers in New York, it must be said, as opposed to Chicago, where they called him Citizen Rosenwald - who said that it should not be forgotten that he might be a generous philanthropist, but that he had gotten rich by - in their judgment - underpaying his employees, women specifically.

Prof. ASCOLI: Yes, he was accused of that. And he paid his lowest paid female employees a very small amount of money. But that was the going rate that was also used by Marshall Fields department store and other similar businesses. He was a businessman first and foremost. He was also very generous in the causes that he believed in.

SIMON: What would his fortune be worth today?

Prof. ASCOLI: He had a fortune which before the stock market crash was estimated at $200 million, which would be over $1 billion in today's money.

SIMON: An inevitable question is, there's a Ford Foundation today, there's a Rockefeller Foundation today; it must be noted they're among the people that give to National Public Radio. Why is there no Julius Rosenwald fund today?

Prof. ASCOLI: Julius Rosenwald was trying to avoid what he considered the evils of bureaucracy. He felt that the ideas for which the foundation had been established would be superceded as time went on, and that it was more important to spend - really to spend the money while you were alive.

SIMON: Can I get you to speak as his grandson as opposed to the historian for a moment?

Prof. ASCOLI: Yes, except that I never knew him. So that makes it a little bit difficult.

SIMON: Do you wish his name was on a few more things? Do you wish the - I must say, because one of the reasons we did this interview is - I mean, as a Chicagoan, I had some knowledge of the name. But you know, you could make the argument that he was perhaps was the most influential American that a lot of people haven't heard of.

Prof. ASCOLI: I think that that's absolutely true. I think, as his biographer, I would have wished that his name had been on more things. But he wasn't that kind of man. He really was a self-effacing man. So yes, I wish he had been recognized. But I wrote the book so that people would learn who this really interesting man was.

SIMON: Peter Ascoli's new book is Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South.

Peter Ascoli, thanks very much for being with us.

Prof. ASCOLI: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: An excerpt is on our Web site.

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