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Alex Bethea, the son of cotton and tobacco farm workers, was in sixth grade in 1965 when his family moved from Dillon, South Carolina, to the tiny town of Fairmont, North Carolina, where he attended a school called Rosenwald.

But it wasn’t until this week, 50 years later, that Bethea learned that his school was named for Julius Rosenwald, the Jewish philanthropist who is the subject of a new documentary by Aviva Kempner. The film tells the little-known story of Rosenwald’s contribution to African-American culture and education.

The revelation came at a July 14 session at the national convention of the NAACP, which drew several thousand delegates to Philadelphia. Bethea was one of some 70 people who attended a screening of the film, “Rosenwald.”

“Julius Rosenwald had a great impact on my life, and I didn’t even know it,” said Bethea, now a vice principal at an elementary school in New Jersey. “This helps me put the pieces of the puzzle of my life together.”


Alex Bethea, a city councilman in Trenton, N.J., who participated in the NAACP convention, attended a Rosenwald school in North Carolina. (Lisa Hostein/JTA)

The philanthropy Rosenwald invested in African-American causes in the early 1900s changed the course of education for thousands of children in the rural South and helped foster the careers of prominent artists, including writer Langston Hughes, opera singer Marion Anderson and painter Jacob Lawrence.

Rosenwald, who made his fortune at the helm of Sears, Roebuck and Co., also provided seed money to build YMCAs for blacks in cities around the country. In addition, he developed a huge apartment complex in Chicago to help improve the living conditions for the masses who had migrated from the Jim Crow South.

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