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Who is Chicago’s Julius Rosenwald? Chicago philanthropist’s namesake apartments reopen

The buildings at 4618-4646 S. Michigan were once the home of Quincy Jones, Joe Louis, Gwendolyn Brooks and Nat King Cole. Over time, the complex became known simply as “The Rosenwald,” and that is the name it reopened under on Friday.

Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in 1915. | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Friday presided over the re-opening of the Rosenwald Courts Apartments, 4600 S. Michigan Ave., a legacy of an under-known hero of the civil rights movement, Chicago’s Julius Rosenwald.

The effort to redevelop the historic complex has been years in the making and Friday marks a new chapter for the Bronzeville structure.

“Nearly a century ago this building served as a beacon for a community on the south side of Chicago,” Emanuel said in a statement.

“Today, thanks to the work and dedication of many people throughout Chicago, the Rosenwald has been restored and will serve as a community anchor once again, bringing new economic opportunities and affordable housing to Bronzeville,” Emanuel said.

The $132 million project created 239 one-and two-bedroom rental units developed by Rosenwald Courts Developers LLC with financial support from the City of Chicago and the Chicago Housing Authority. There will also be commercial and office space along 47th Street.

Rosenwald built what was then called the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments in 1929; his goal was to provide decent housing for African Americans at a time of rampant segregation in Chicago.

The historic Rosenwald Apartments had fallen into disrepair after standing vacant for many years. | Sun-Times file photo
The historic Rosenwald Apartments had fallen into disrepair after standing vacant for many years. | Sun-Times file photo

The buildings at 4618-4646 S. Michigan – in disrepair until the redevelopment – were once the home of Quincy Jones, Joe Louis, Gwendolyn Brooks and Nat King Cole.

Over time, the complex became known simply as “The Rosenwald,” and that is the name it reopened under on Friday.

Rosenwald, born in Springfield in 1862, the son of German-Jewish immigrants, was a part-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Co., serving as president or board chairman of the company from 1908 through 1932, the year he died.

Rosenwald became one of the richest men in the nation — and a philanthropist determined to aid struggling African-Americans who faced discrimination and Jim Crow laws.

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.

The renovated Rosenwald apartments officially reopened on Friday. | City of Chicago photo
The renovated Rosenwald apartments officially reopened on Friday. | City of Chicago photo

Rosenwald also created a network of 5,500 schools, mainly in the South, serving impoverished African-American children ignored by their local public schools. The Rosenwald schools educated more than 660,000 students between 1915 and 1932.

Rosenwald’s extraordinary philanthropy was the subject of a 2015 film, “Rosenwald,” by Aviva Kempner, a Washington, D.C., filmmaker whose subjects are under-known Jewish heroes.

Rosenwald lived in a mansion at 4901 S. Ellis and also had a home in Highland Park.

The movie website and blog, rosenwaldfilm.org details Rosenwald’s life from Hyde Park to Highland Park with present day connections.

Rosenwald 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.

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 historic Rosenwald Apartments, before their renovation, at Michigan Avenue and 46th Street. | Sun-Times file photo
The historic Rosenwald Apartments, before their renovation, at Michigan Avenue and 46th Street. | Sun-Times file photo