By Guy Trammell Jr.
On June 21, 1881, Booker T. Washington, a former Black slave, arrived at Chehaw Train Station in Tuskegee, Alabama, where his world would be forever changed; he became the ﬁrst principal of Tuskegee University. Years later, on August 13, 1895, Julius Rosenwald, a young Jewish clothing merchant, signed a formal agreement to become a partner of Sears Roebuck & Co., the catalog merchandise giant in Chicago, Illinois.
Richard Sears, a marketing genius, had started the Sears company but had problems getting products to customers. Customers received things they didn’t order, or got nothing at all. In November 1908, JR, as Rosenwald was known, became company president and increased its proﬁts by way of high quality customer service and quality merchandise.
Because of U.S. national prejudice, JR could not let the public know the Sears president was Jewish, but he made sure both his customers and his employees were treated with respect. A retail laboratory was set up to guarantee quality products and to ensure customers were satisﬁed with their orders, and the company called in nurses if employees were injured or sick.
JR became a philanthropist, using his wealth to support both Jewish and Black causes. One primary support for the Black community was the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association). In addition to its sports activities, the Y, as it was known, was a place to get a bath and spend the night. When Blacks traveled north to Chicago and other cities, they often had no place to stay until they were employed. The Y was where they could stay to get started.
L. Wilbur Messer, general secretary for the Chicago branch of the YMCA, met Booker T. Washington on a train, and Washington inquired about a person from Chicago to ﬁll a vacancy on his Board of Trustees. Messer suggested JR, and invited Washington to speak at the YMCA’s 53rd Anniversary dinner, where the two met on May 18, 1911. When Washington asked him to join the Tuskegee Board or give a donation, JR said he was not interested. JR wrote to his wife, in the custom of the day, of the “two darkies” he met with.
Undeterred. Washington arranged a two-day tour of Tuskegee for JR, who came by train in October 1911 with a group of Chicago dignitaries. After the two days JR remarked (in contrast to his earlier thoughts), “I was astonished at the progressiveness in the schools. I don’t believe there is a white industrial school in America or anywhere that compares to Mr. Washington’s at Tuskegee.”
JR and Washington became close personal friends and JR became a Trustee, serving for most of his life. He supported Tuskegee University ﬁnancially, but also worked with Washington to build over 5,000 Black elementary schools; he provided one-third of the ﬁnancing, with the balance raised by the communities and the local Boards of Education. Locally these included Chehaw School, Shiloh School, Brownville No. 1, and South Macon.
Tuskegee University’s architect, Robert R. Taylor, designed the schools; Tuskegee’s outreach director, Clinton J. Calloway, organized the communities and supervised the project; and George W. Carver designed the curriculum and landscaping for the schools. The Rosenwald Fund also supported Notasulga’s Zora Neale Hurston and Tuskegee University’s Ralph Ellison, and the fund built Robert Russa Moton Airﬁeld.
By Amy Miller
Julius Rosenwald, who helped fund more than 5,000 schools for African Americans in the Jim Crow south, also helped educate me and my siblings. Our story, though, is a white story, profoundly different from the story of more than 600,000 Black children who went to Rosenwald schools, children who might have been working the fields had they not been in schools created by Rosenwald in partnership with Booker T. Washington.
Last month, co-columnist Guy Trammell invited me to watch a film about Rosenwald online and then join a virtual group discussion. Producer Aviva Kempner attended the discussion, along with Tuskegee historians and many alumni of Rosenwald schools. A few of us were from South Berwick, invited because our town is Tuskegee’s sister city.
I didn’t say much during the discussion, didn’t mention the indirect role Rosenwald played in my life. It pales in comparison to his role creating schools for Black children, including writer Toni Morrison and the late Rep. John Lewis, but reveals deep-seated truths about the country awaiting European Americans compared to the world African Americans were living in at the time, not to mention the world awaiting their ancestors when they arrived centuries earlier against their will.
My great-grandfather Samuel Arnstein, born in New York in 1862, was the first generation to be born in America. HIs father, Alexander, came from Germany and was likely a peddler, like so many other German Jews, including Rosenwald’s own father Samuel, who arrived in 1854 with $20 in his pocket.
Samuel Arnstein, my mother’s mother’s father, and his four brothers had a jewelry business at 37 Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan. As it happened, Arnstein Bros. opened in 1886, the same year Sears Roebuck opened. Sears apparently bought jewelry from Arnstein Bros. and, lacking the funds, the new retail company paid the Arnsteins in Sears stock instead.
Long after Samuel Arnstein died and the Arnsteins left or closed their business, that stock paid for my college.
So Rosenwald indirectly provided an education to me and my siblings, as well as some of my Tuskegee brothers and sisters. Unlike African Americans, who have faced centuries of exclusions and injustice, my ancestors were able to start companies, buy properties, and build enough wealth to pass some down.
The 50th anniversary pamphlet put out by the Arnstein Brothers in 1936 opens with the company’s motto: “To Have Good Neighbors, You Must Be A Good Neighbor.” I have no idea if my great-grandfather was a good neighbor. But what I do know is that yes, he worked hard, and yes, his privilege as a white American laid a foundation for the life of a great-granddaughter he never met.