The legacy of one Sears president to the black community

The legacy of one Sears president to the black community
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The announcement of the closing of Sears stores as a consequence of a bankruptcy filing ends a chapter in the life of this retail giant that should earn it a place of honor in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Sears’ retail sales strategy was to develop a nationwide mail-order catalog, which became an iconic staple in American homes. Though this option to order goods by phone and mail may not have been established intentionally to benefit black Americans, it had significant impact in relieving some of the humiliating experiences blacks endured as they shopped for clothes and household items during the days of the Jim Crow South. They could shop on an equal level with whites, whereas in white-owned stores they had to wait for their purchases until all whites were served, and they often had access only to merchandise of inferior quality at higher prices.

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In essence, mail-order delivery undermined white supremacy in the rural South. Even in the Sears stores, blacks were not barred from shopping as they were elsewhere, and the company hired black employees — though for jobs in the warehouses, food service, and as janitors, rather than clerks.

In 1912, an initiative begun by Sears President Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, had an impact that went far beyond the benefits that the company’s retail practices had for black Americans. A collaborative project created by Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute (where Rosenwald was a trustee), was to change the course of black education in the South. Within two decades, throughout the rural South, nearly 5,000 state-of-the-art schools were built.  

Designed by Tuskegee architects to enhance the educational environment, the schools typically incorporated banks of windows to allow maximum lighting in an era where electricity was not available. Plans even specified that the buildings were to be positioned so that the sunlight would enter from the left, so students’ hands would not cast shadows on their work. Most schools included a meeting room that served as a gathering place for community meetings and events.  By 1928, one-third of the South’s rural black schoolchildren and teachers were served by Rosenwald schools. Among the schools’ notable alumni are poet Maya Angelou and Rep. John LewisJohn LewisJohn Lewis joins Ocasio-Cortez on climate change push Pelosi, potential challenger Fudge hold 'candid' discussion Incoming Michigan Dem will not back Pelosi MORE (D-Ga.).

Importantly, in the words of one Rosenwald Fund official, the initiative created “not merely a series of schoolhouses, but a community enterprise in cooperation between citizens and officials, white and colored.” Rosenwald funding required the white school boards to agree to operate the facilities and came as a matching grant. The Rosenwald Fund contributed $4.3 million to construct the schools, and rural black communities raised more than $4.7 million from churches, organizations and individuals. Community investments included cash, labor, lumber and materials, and land as a site for a school — as well as nickels and dimes from “box parties” where women put together box lunches for neighbors to bid on.

The impact of the Rosenwald schools went beyond educational opportunities that transformed the futures of hundreds of thousands of children. An evaluation financed by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, using data on communities that had a Rosenwald school with those that did not, found that the schools had a significant impact on both the children and their communities.

In the 1920s, the gap in educational attainment between black and white males in the South was three years. Blacks had an average of fifth-grade education, compared to eighth grade for whites. By the 1940s, that gap had closed to just six months — in an era when the local government funding for black schools was a fraction of that spent for white schools. This dramatic closing of the educational racial gap largely has been attributed to the Rosenwald schools.

The impact of the schools had a ripple effect that impacted the trajectories of their students:

“First and foremost, they got more education. … But that’s only the beginning. Students who went to Rosenwald schools had higher IQ scores than kids who didn’t. They made more money later in life. They were more likely to travel to the North as part of the Great Migration. They lived a little bit longer. The women delayed marriage and had fewer kids. And crime rates in the area of the schools went down.”

Though a white Northerner, Rosenwald’s religious heritage made him feel a kinship with African-Americans because, as the philanthropist stated, “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 suffer,” according to his grandson and biographer Dr. Peter Ascoli.

In addition to the thousands of schools built in the rural South, Rosenwald helped to fund black YMCAs and YWCAs. He provided financial support to black artists and writers, including opera singer Marian Anderson, poet Langston Hughes, photographer Gordon Parks and writer James Baldwin.  

This is what I would call a museum-worthy impact.

Robert L. Woodson, Sr. is the president and founder of the Woodson Center. Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson.