"Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are": The Parallel Views of Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald on the Road to Equality

By Aamidor, Abraham | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

"Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are": The Parallel Views of Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald on the Road to Equality


Aamidor, Abraham, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The story of Booker T. Washington is well known. Born near Roanoke, Virginia, in 1856 to an enslaved mother and an unidentified white man who had his way with her, Washington worked in mines and did other manual labor in his youth. Somehow, he learned to read and write well enough, and eventually he made his way to the Hampton Institute, which had been founded in 1868 by a Union Army general near Hampton, Virginia. The school emphasized manual arts education for ex-slaves; this was a program Washington was to largely emulate when he became headmaster of the Tuskegee Institute, near Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1881. The school served both young black men and women.

Washington rose to national prominence, first, with his "Atlanta Compromise Speech" in 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exposition, in which he argued that economic progress for blacks must precede full political equality and almost seemed to endorse separate development of the races, a view that was considered non-threatening to whites.1 Washington apparently was the first black leader to speak at such a public gathering of important Southern white leaders. Later, he won fame with publication of his autobiography, Up From Slavery, in which he essentially followed a Horatio Alger storyline. This, too, was non-threatening to whites, and it was a reasonably accurate portrait of his struggles in life to that point.

Julius Rosenwald is far less well-known today, though his legacy is a household name because of his connection with the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Rosenwald was born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1862 to German-Jewish immigrants. A high school dropout, he sold souvenir booklets door-to-door and played the organ in a Methodist church in Springfield, and at age 16 or 17 went to work in his uncles' retail clothing store in New York.2 In 1885 Rosenwald started a clothing manufacturing business with a cousin, and in 1895 the two bought a substantial interest in a struggling watch and catalog mail-order house, that is, Sears, Roebuck & Co. His big innovations were to expand the catalog greatly, and to guarantee everything in it. Rosenwald was president of Sears from 1908 to 1924, and chairman of the board from 1924 until his death in 1932.

Rosenwald also became famous during his life as a philanthropist. He largely funded the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park on Chicago's Southside, which was only about two miles from his home, and he helped fund two dozen YMCA's that catered to African-Americans. Through a challenge-grant program he initiated in 1917, Rosenwald helped build 5,357 schools and teacher's homes for African-American students in the rural South. At one time in the 1920s, two out of every five African-American children in the Old South who attended school did so in a Rosenwald school.3 Though the school building program ended with Rosenwald's death in 1932, the Rosenwald Fund supported scholarships and subsidies for many African-American scholars, authors, and artists, such as W.E.B. DuBois, novelist James Baldwin, poet Langston Hughes, singer Marian Anderson, and scores of others.4

Rosenwald and Washington first met in Chicago in late 1911; Washington was the keynote speaker at a gathering of civic leaders at Chicago's lakefront Blackstone hotel, and Rosenwald was the man who introduced him to the crowd. Rosenwald was taken with his guest, and the man's cause, and he soon signed on as a trustee of the Tuskegee Institute, a position he held even beyond Washington's death in 1915. Unlike contemporary white philanthropists who supported AfricanAmerican causes, Rosenwald actually established a close, personal and working relationship with his main beneficiary, Washington. It was an important relationship-one of the very central figures in black American history, and a leading Jewish philanthropist in America of the time, had a strong working relationship.

Yet the relationship between Rosenwald and Washington is hardly acknowledged today. …

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