Rosenwald Schools and the Stern Fund

ACORN History Taxes

            New Orleans       In principle, it’s hard to be a fan of foundations.  Too many of the rich and super rich use them as little more than tax dodges, choosing their own personal aggrandizement over paying for public services and needs to be approved by the people.  The devil needs to be given his due though, because some foundations do some very good things, even if it might seem too often to be the right thing for the wrong reason.

I found myself reading carefully the cover article in the National Parks Association magazine recently on Julius Rosenwald.  There is an effort under way to create a national park site to commemorate Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Schools.  Rosenwald was a hugely successful Chicago businessman who made Sears Roebuck stores and mail-order catalogue business the dominated commercial enterprise of its era, the Amazon of its time.  With a philosophy of spending his wealth while alive, he and his foundations funded the building of over 5300 schools throughout the Southern states from Maryland to east Texas to educate Black children at a time when they were effectively blocked from public education because of discrimination and Jim Crow.  I have to admit, that’s kind of amazing.  He heard Booker T. Washington speak and picked up the flag and ran with it.  His philanthropy and support of equal education didn’t end there.  The Rosenwald Fund was also a key funder of the NAACP and the legal work that won the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, which integrated the nation’s schools.  In addition to the effort to create a historical park in his honor, there are many local efforts to try to preserve and restore some of the 250 of the 500 Rosenwald schools still standing in more than a dozen states.  This is history worth raising up.  True to his word, the Rosenwald Fund ceased operation in 1948.

I followed this story closely for other reasons as well.  Part of Rosenwald’s legacy was also found in the inheritances shared by his grandchildren that resided in part in the Stern Fund with offices in New York, but roots in New Orleans and a family showplace house and grounds in the Metairie suburb outside the city.  The Stern Fund also was timed out and gave its last grants in 1986.  ACORN received one of those farewell grants.  In fact, when it was all tallied out, ACORN had been the single largest recipient of Stern Fund grants over the years.  David Hunter, their longtime executive director, was willing to take risks and carry our water, making their resources, along with others like Shalan, Veatch, Schumann, CCHD, and Tides, the key to our great expansion and growth during that period.  I can still remember my first meeting with Hunter in New Orleans near our Baronne Street office at the time, which was also down the block from Philip Stern’s investment office’s building.  In the Times’ farewell article to the Stern Fund, Stern was quoted as saying the family then and, in the future, had gotten the “vaccination” that started with Rosenwald, the source of the money.

Since we seem a long way from tax justice, it would be nice in commemorating their great contributions if more were vaccinated in the same way, rather than making Rosenwald and the Stern Fund such glaring exceptions to the general rule.