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Julius Rosenwald National Park? Congress approves bill to preserve legacy of Chicago philanthropist, Sears executive

Illinois Democrats Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Danny Davis sponsored the bill to honor Rosenwald, famous for his schools serving Black students in the Jim Crow south.

Julius Rosenwald, seen with students from a Rosenwald school, in an undated photo.
Provided/Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Special Collections

WASHINGTON — Congress approved a measure to create a multi-site national park to preserve the legacy of Julius Rosenwald, the Chicago philanthropist and Sears, Roebuck and Co. executive known for his groundbreaking gifts providing educational opportunities to Black students during the Jim Crow era.

If signed into law, the legislation, sponsored by Illinois Democrats Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Danny Davis, requires the Interior Secretary to study sites associated with Rosenwald in Chicago and in 15 southern states where he bankrolled the historic “Rosenwald Schools.”

Rosenwald, the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, was born in Springfield in 1862 and raised in a house across the street from where Abraham Lincoln once lived.

Under Rosenwald, Sears became a powerhouse retailer. He lived in a mansion at 4901 S. Ellis Ave. and in Highland Park.

Davis, speaking on the House floor on Dec. 17, said Rosenwald, “used his fortune to enhance the lives of others, establishing museums, community centers and housing as well as helping Jews in Europe and new immigrants coming to the United States.”

Turning to the network of 5,357 schools Rosenwald bankrolled between 1912 and 1932, Davis — who was raised in Alabama — noted that “one-third of all African American children in the South during the 1920s, 30s and 40s were educated in Rosenwald Schools.”

In closing, Davis, a West Side resident, said, “I’m very passionate about this bill. I also live in the area where the international headquarters for Sears and Roebuck existed at that time. So the name Julius Rosenwald is an entity that our country should never, ever forget. And we ought to have as many ways of expressing it as we possibly can.”

After meeting Booker T. Washington — the former slave who in 1881 founded Tuskegee, the historically Black university — and Rabbi Emil Hirsch — who led the Chicago Sinai Congregation, then on the South Side — Rosenwald decided to turn to philanthropy.

In Chicago, Rosenwald founded the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park.

In Bronzeville, the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments complex Rosenwald developed in 1929 for Black residents denied decent housing in segregated Chicago was known back in the day by its nickname, “The Rosenwald.”

Rosenwald also funded YMCAs across the country, notably the Wabash Avenue YMCA, 3763 S. Wabash Ave., listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1913, during the time of the Great Migration, the Wabash Y provided housing and job training.

The thousands of schools in the impoverished South are still known as the Rosenwald schools and are the centerpiece of his national legacy.

The Rosenwald measure passed the Senate unanimously on Monday after earlier winning approval in the House.

Durbin, who lives in Springfield, said in a statement that Rosenwald’s “commitment to African American education forever changed the lives of may across the rural south.”

The National Park System runs various entities often referred to as parks, including national monuments, historic sites, seashores and battlefields. If created, this would be the first national park to honor a Jewish American.

According to the legislation, the study — to span no more than three years — would suggest sites — including one in or near Chicago — to preserve and honor Rosenwald’s work at the various locations. The study would determine if the Rosenwald legacy project should be incorporated into the National Park System or is best run by a non-profit or local government entity.

The Interior Department study, according to the legislation, will have “special emphasis” at the following sites connected to Rosenwald in Chicago and Springfield:

• The former Sears Administration Building at Homan Square.

• The Rosenwald apartments.

• The Museum of Science and Industry.

• The Rosenwald House that is already in the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield.

The Rosenwald schools to be studied include one, two and three-teacher schools in Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina and Alabama and Dunbar Junior High, Senior High and Junior College in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Aviva Kempner, a Washington D.C. filmmaker whose documentary “Rosenwald” details his partnership with the Black community, said Rosenwald is “one of the great untold stories of philanthropy, both in the Chicago area and in the South.”

A national park would “celebrate Rosenwald’s philosophy, which was repairing the world,” Kempner said.