WASHINGTON — A new documentary tells an important story about a Chicagoan you should know, Julius Rosenwald. When I was growing up, my folks called the museum he founded the Rosenwald Museum, though it’s the Museum of Science and Industry.
In Bronzeville, the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments complex Rosenwald developed in 1929 for African-Americans shut out of decent housing in segregated Chicago is still talked about in some precincts as “The Rosenwald.”
The seed money Rosenwald provided to build more than 5,000 schools for African-Americans in the impoverished rural Jim Crow South, became known unofficially as Rosenwald schools.
There’s much more to Rosenwald’s extraordinary philanthropy, and now Aviva Kempner, a Washington, D.C., filmmaker whose subjects are under-known Jewish heroes, is telling it in her movie “Rosenwald. ”
It opens in Chicago on Friday at the Landmark Century Centre, 2828 N. Clark St., and at the Landmark Renaissance Cinema in Highland Park.
Chicago “is the focal point of where Julius Rosenwald lived and worked and made his fortune and expressed his philanthropy,” Kempner told me on Wednesday. Rosenwald, born in 1862, grew up in Springfield, across the street from Abraham Lincoln’s home.
Rosenwald went on to build Sears, Roebuck and Co. into a powerhouse retailer. As the president and then chairman he earned a fortune from the business, headquartered in Chicago. He lived in a mansion at 4901 S. Ellis and he also had a home in Highland Park.
Inspired by Booker T. Washington, the former slave who founded Tuskegee, the historically black university in 1881, and Rabbi Emil Hirsch, who led the Chicago Sinai Congregation, then on the South Side, Rosenwald decided to turn to philanthropy.
He used his money — in all, $62 million — to address what in Hebrew is called “tikkun olam” — to repair the world and charity, or “tzedakah.”
His concerns about racial inequality led him to projects to help African-Americans secure an education, reserved in his time for whites only. He aided a variety of Chicago Jewish organizations and other city institutions, including the University of Chicago. African-American artists and writers won grants from his Rosenwald Fund fellowship and scholarship program.
Through the 12 years it took Kempner, an independent filmmaker, to make “Rosenwald,” she traveled to Chicago about a dozen times. In the city, she immersed herself in Rosenwald’s legacy and the people who have, even decades after his death in 1932, been touched by him.
The documentary features many voices of Chicagoans, including Peter Ascoli, the Hyde Parker who is Rosenwald’s grandson and whose book, “Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South,” provided Kempner with an understanding of Rosenwald’s life and work.
Steven Nasatir, the president of the Jewish Federation of Chicago, and Rabbi Howard Berman, rabbi emeritus at Temple Sinai, talked about Hirsch’s influence and Rosenwald’s role as a major leader and donor to Jewish charities in Chicago.
Donald Stewart, the former CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, helped recount how Rosenwald gave $25,000 to help build a YMCA for African-Americans in Chicago — and offered the same sum to any city to get the ball rolling to construct more.
The Rosenwald strands come together in interviews with Barbara Bowman and her sister Lauranita Dugas, who passed away in May.
Their grandfather, Robert Taylor, was the first architecture teacher at Tuskegee. Taylor “actually provided the plans for the Rosenwald schools,” Bowman recalls in the film.
The father of Bowman and Dugas was Robert Rochon Taylor, who was raised at Tuskegee. He became the first manager of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments.
“It was the only place where middle-class African-Americans could live in a well-tended, well-organized building,” Bowman says in the film. “I spent my childhood playing in the Rosenwald garden.”
Longtime Chicago civil rights champion Timuel Black recalled, “We would brag about we went to the Rosenwald.” Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., also reflects on Rosenwald’s legacy in the documentary.
Bowman’s daughter is White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett. She viewed Kempner’s film with her mom a few months ago.
Said Jarrett, “We both thought it was an excellent history lesson about the importance of Rosenwald in the history of the African-American community.”
Kempner flew back to Chicago on Wednesday to launch “Rosenwald.
She will take questions about her documentary after the 4:15 p.m. and 7 p.m. screenings Friday in Chicago. She will discuss the movie on Saturday after the noon show in Highland Park.
Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet