Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Friday presides over the re-opening of the Rosenwald Courts Apartments at 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 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 at a time of rampant segregation in Chicago.
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 is reopening under on Friday.
Rosenwald, born in Springfield in 1862, the son of German-Jewish immigrants, was a part owner of Sears, Roebuck and Co., 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.
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 titled “Rosenwald” by Aviva Kempner, a Washington, D.C., filmmaker whose subjects are under-known Jewish heroes.
The movie website and blog, rosenwaldschoolfilms.org, details Rosenwald’s life from Hyde Park to Highland Park with present day connections.
He lived in a mansion at 4901 S. Ellis and also had a home in Highland Park.
He 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.
Through the 12 years it took Kempner, an independent filmmaker, to make “Rosenwald,” she traveled to Chicago about a dozen times. In the city, she immersed herself in Rosenwald’s legacy and the people who have, even decades after his death in 1932, been touched by him.
The documentary features many voices of Chicagoans, including Peter Ascoli, the Hyde Parker who is Rosenwald’s grandson and whose book, “Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South,” provided Kempner with an understanding of Rosenwald’s life and work.
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 Rosenwald strands come together in interviews with Barbara Bowman and her sister Lauranita Dugas, who passed away in May.
Their grandfather, Robert Taylor, was the first architecture teacher at Tuskegee. Taylor “actually provided the plans for the Rosenwald schools,” Bowman recalls in the film.
The father of Bowman and Dugas was Robert Rochon Taylor, who was raised at Tuskegee. He became the first manager of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments.
“It was the only place where middle-class African-Americans could live in a well-tended, well-organized building,” Bowman says in the film. “I spent my childhood playing in the Rosenwald garden.”
Longtime Chicago civil rights champion Timuel Black recalled, “We would brag about we went to the Rosenwald.” Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., also reflects on Rosenwald’s legacy in the documentary.
Bowman’s daughter is White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett. She viewed Kempner’s film with her mom a few months ago.
Said Jarrett, “We both thought it was an excellent history lesson about the importance of Rosenwald in the history of the African-American community.”
Kempner flew back to Chicago on Wednesday to launch “Rosenwald.
She will take questions about her documentary after the 4:15 p.m. and 7 p.m. screenings Friday in Chicago. She will discuss the movie on Saturday after the noon show in Highland Park.