Rosenwald helped turn Sears into a world-class company and establish the Museum of Science and Industry, for which he served as president. But in the southern United States, he is remembered for his efforts to advance African-American education when many people ignored the plight of black residents.
At age 17, Rosenwald, the child of German immigrants, left central Illinois for New York City to apprentice with his uncles. He ultimately returned to his Illinois roots, moving to Chicago, and in 1895 became a partner in — and later president of — Sears, Roebuck & Co.
“He grew as a businessman,” said Peter M. Ascoli, Rosenwald’s grandson and biographer. “Richard Sears was not a businessman. He was a marketer. That was his forte.”
Rosenwald focused on customer service and honesty, designing a system for efficient merchandise return and creating a satisfaction guaranteed or money back commitment.
“People really trusted Sears. (Rosenwald) really developed a whole different method of running the company,” Ascoli said. Rosenwald also tested every product in the Sears catalog, which in those days included medicine, to make sure the descriptions were honest.
After World War I, he gave $21 million to rescue Sears from financial calamity.
Rosenwald found philanthropy through his rabbi, Emil Hirsch. But it was two books, including Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, “Up from Slavery” that “sort of opened his eyes to the condition of African-Americans,” Ascoli said.
“The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which they have suffered and still suffered,” Rosenwald wrote.
With Washington, Rosenwald opened more than 5,300 schools throughout the South. At one point, at least one-third of southern black children were in a Rosenwald school building, said Tracy Hayes, a National Trust for Historic Preservation field officer based in Charleston, S.C.
“Education’s the key to moving ahead,” she added. “There was a whole segment of the southern population that was not receiving anything close to an equal education.”
About 75 percent of Rosenwald buildings were lost with integration. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a groundswell of interest in preserving the remaining schools, Hayes said. “These buildings should be saved and they should be used. Their stories should be told,” she added.
In 2002, the National Trust added the schools to a list of the 11 most endangered sites. The goal is to save 100 schools and give smaller groups tools to save more, Hayes said.After he funded what’s now named the Museum of Science and Industry, Rosenwald fought to have his name removed from the title.
“He thought it should be the people’s museum,” Ascoli said.
Rosenwald organized his foundation to go out of existence within 25 years of his death.“He believed that each generation should give away money to the causes that it believes in,” Ascoli said.