Julius Rosenwald amassed a personal fortune without dulling his conscious or staying his moral compass.
When the part-owner and leader of Sears, Roebuck and Company met with his friend, Paul J. Sachs, they often discussed ways they could make the nation better. Sachs, a museum director and partner in the financial firm Goldman Sachs, made an impact on the national betterment front by creating one of the first museum studies courses in the country.
During one of the congenial get-togethers in the early part of the 20th century, the two men sought to pinpoint the most urgent need in American society at the time. They quickly agreed that it was the desperate lot of many black citizens, particularly those living in the South.
These were strong, brilliant men with the drive and connections to make a difference. Sachs got things going by introducing Rosenwald to educator Booker T. Washington.
Rosenwald had read Washington's autobiography and was deeply moved by it. When the two men met, they immediately hit it off and quickly became close friends.
The famous educator knew where help was most desperately needed, and the business tycoon had the financial wherewithal to do something about it. Washington was convinced that education was what would pave the path that would lead black children out of poverty.
To this end, Rosenwald wielded his checkbook like a clay more sword to clear the way, and give the underprivileged children a leg up in life through education. He started by paying for six small schools in Alabama that would serve rural black children.
The structures, built in 1913 and 1914, were constructed by black craftsmen, which also helped to improve their lives. The initial schoolhouses provided knowledge on how best to go about a project that Rosenwald intended to grow on a monumental scale.
In 1917, Rosenwald created the Rosenwald Fund with the single ambition of it becoming an instrument for "the well being of mankind." From the establishment of the fund until 1948, when the money was completely exhausted, it contributed more than $70 million.
The money was used to create public schools, colleges, universities, museums, Jewish charities and black institutions. The building of what became known as Rosenwald Schools was a large part of the fund's improvement efforts.
It contributed millions of dollars in matching funds to the building of more than 5,000 schools, shops and dwellings for the teachers employed by the institutes of learning. These schools were constructed throughout the South from 1917 until 1932.
Several of the schools were built in Albemarle County. One of them was just honored with the installment of a state historical marker issued by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
The marker commemorates St. John School, which was built in 1922-23 in Cobham. The sign is located at 1569 St. John Road in Keswick.
The Rosenwald Fund provided $700 toward the construction of the two-classroom wooden structure. Those living nearby donated an additional $500, and Albemarle County contributed $1,300.
The schools were designed to last, and the carpenters made sure this would be the case. Evidence of the superior workmanship can be found in the fact that the schoolhouse still stands. Five other former Rosenwald Schools built in Albemarle County are now used as private homes.
St. John Elementary School was closed in the 1950s. For years, the former school was used as a private home. Then, in 2003, it was bought by St. John Baptist Church.
Funds are being raised to transform the building into the St. John Family Life and Fitness Center. A part of the center will house a museum that will help tell the story of the school.
Rosenwald was born and raised in a house in Springfield, Illinois, one block from the home of Abraham Lincoln. The 16th president of the United States loved learning, but he had spent less than a year in a schoolhouse.
Lincoln's generous hometown neighbor did what he could to ensure that this wouldn't happen to black children. By the time the Roaring '20s were coming to an end, a third of rural black children living in the South were being educated in Rosenwald Schools.
In 1916, a young journalist, B.C. Forbes, wrote a profile piece about Rosenwald. The writer, who would go on to found For besmagazine, wrote the following about his subject:
"The greatest thing about Julius Rosenwald is not his business, but himself; not what he has, but what he is — his character, his personality, his sincerity, his honesty, his democracy, his thoughtfulness, his charity of heart, his catholicity of sympathy, his consuming desire to help the less fortunate of his fellow creatures."