You may think you know the great American retailer that changed the very nature of commerce, offering everything under the sun at low prices for delivery to your doorstep. It wasn't Amazon, though, but Sears, Roebuck & Co. that first took retail by storm that way. And while Google's Larry Page, another luminary of our age of disruption, has said he wants to "change the world," consider Julius Rosenwald, Sears's president 100 years ago and the subject of filmmaker Aviva Kempner's latest in a series of biographies of what she calls "under-known Jewish heroes."
Inspired by Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald financed schools for black children, quickly known as "Rosenwald" schools, across the South. In his lifetime, Rosenwald shelled out $62 million, often matching grants that galvanized the recipient communities. Consider also the "who's who" of black intellectuals and artists Rosenwald's foundation supported: Marian Anderson, James Baldwin, Julian Bond's father and uncle, Ralph Bunche, W.E.B. Du Bois, Katherine Dunham, Ralph Ellison, John Hope Franklin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, and Augusta Savage. Plus a white guy named Woody Guthrie.
Kempner's film, which has an eat-your-vegetables quality, runs long and suffers from a lack of focus. It's an interruption and a time-waster, for example, when we're shown how Rosenwald built the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago or how his two younger children were neglected rich kids.
Still, it's inspiring how Rosenwald, who took full advantage of capitalism's potential, also shared, passionately and generously, his windfall. And that's how you change the world.