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Hearth & Home September 2017

Tom Lassiter
Guest Editor,
Hearth & Home Magazine

An Amazing Achievement

Twice a year thousands of us in the patio furnishings industry travel to Chicago and the Merchandise Mart. There, by the river, we are met by eight large busts of leaders from times past. Each of the eight created a business career remarkable in its size, sophistication and impact.

They were leaders in the truest sense of the word, and the embodiment of Robert Kennedy’s famous quote:

“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why ...

 I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

To immortalize outstanding American merchants, in 1953 Joseph Kennedy commissioned eight bronze busts, four times life-size, which would come to be known as the Merchandise Mart Hall of Fame:

  • Retail magnates Frank Winfield Woolworth, Marshall Field & Aaron Montgomery Ward
  • Julius Rosenwald and Robert Elkington Wood of Sears, Roebuck and Company fame
  • Advertiser John Wanamaker
  • Merchandiser Edward Albert Filene, and
  • A&P grocery chain founder George Huntington Hartford.

The busts rest on white pedestals lining the Chicago River and face north toward the gold front door of the building. One of these giants of commerce stands out in particular.

Julius Rosenwald, dead 20 years when his bust was erected, would have objected strenuously at such a monument. Though he was the driving force and founder behind Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, he wouldn’t allow his name to be attached to the institution. He was modest about his philanthropy and his business success.

He made his millions as the genius who brought order to the chaotic business of Sears, Roebuck. Under Rosenwald’s leadership, Sears grew to become a 20th century icon. Rosenwald, born to German Jewish immigrants, grew up in Springfield, Illinois, in a house across the street from Abe Lincoln’s. He went to work as a teen and never finished high school. That might have been his only regret.

A chance meeting with educator Booker T. Washington, who had been born into slavery, led to Rosenwald’s most amazing achievement. It’s one that will enshrine his memory when Sears is but a footnote in business textbooks.

Walnut Cove Colored School, Walnut Cove, North Carolina.

Washington, president of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, explained that public education was largely denied to African Americans in the Jim Crow South. Decent schools, especially in rural areas, just didn’t exist.

The men hatched a friendship and a plan. Rosenwald would grant seed money to communities, one by one, to build schools for black children. Citizens would have to pitch in, as well as the local school board. The first school opened in 1913.

By 1932, the plan had constructed nearly 5,000 schoolhouses from Maryland to Texas. Many served through the end of segregation. Generations of students benefitted, including poet Maya Angelou and Civil Rights leader John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman.

Today, communities throughout the South are rallying to save the surviving schoolhouses. We know them as Rosenwald Schools, a fitting monument to a modest man.

Ed. Note: Hearth & Home writer Tom Lassiter is in the process of creating a documentary film of Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald schools; it will be formatted for a one-hour public TV broadcast. This is a non-profit effort, and donations are accepted at:

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