When Booker T. Washington called upon African Americans to gain formal education and work toward self-reliance, wealthy white progressives were spurred to provide America's black population with financial as well as rhetorical support. In the 1920s a number of American philanthropists, including Chicago's Julius Rosenwald, dedicated themselves to the challenge of confronting the unsolved national problem of racial inequality. Persuaded by Washington's concept of racial uplift, Rosenwald funded construction of 5,357 rural schools for Southern blacks, ensured the construction and equipping of YMCAs open to all races, and served as trustee of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He also gave thousands of dollars to progressive reform organizations such as Chicago's Hull House, supported medical care for Chicago's African-Americans through donations to Provident Hospital, and in 1929 built a low-income housing complex for the city's African-American populace. "Race prejudice is merely destructive," he said in an address to the American Missionary Association, because "it offers nothing but a hopeless warfare and a blank pessimism."
Born to Jewish immigrant parents in Springfield, Illinois, Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) attained great financial and political power as president (1910–25) and chairman of the board (1925–32) of Sears, Roebuck and Company. A careful and judicious donor who gave in the hopes that others would do likewise, Rosenwald was an ardent advocate of a conception of philanthropy that focused on expendable rather than endowment resources. He published newspaper and magazine essays arguing that donors had a responsibility to make sure that their contributions were most effective in their own time, leaving the needs of the future to the generosity of donors who would surely come later. In a January 1929 Saturday Evening Post article he declared "that the needs of the future can safely be left to be met by the generations of the future. . . Like the manna of the Bible, which melted at the close of each day, philanthropic enterprises should come to an end with the close of the philanthropist's life." Funds for worthy causes should be given in a donor's lifetime, rather than by creating permanent foundations, because the subsequent administrative leaders of such foundations could easily ignore the original intentions of the donor. Each generation, Rosenwald firmly believed, was responsible for solving its own social problems.
Yet, even as Julius Rosenwald confronted some of the thorniest social policy dilemmas of his time, he also supported the cause of quality private higher education with magnificent gifts to the University of Chicago. Like his close neighbors and fellow Trustees Martin Ryerson and Harold Swift, Rosenwald maintained a residence just north of the University in the Kenwood neighborhood, where he owned a grand, if cumbersome mansion at 4901 S. Ellis Avenue. Like Ryerson and Swift, residential proximity to the University became one of many reasons for Rosenwald to give so generously. For such civic leaders the new University of Chicago was not only "Chicago's University," but also Kenwood's and Hyde Park's university as well.
Rosenwald's first donation came in 1904, when he contributed $6,500 to purchase the collection of German literary works that came to be known as the Hirsch-Bernays Library. Soon after his appointment to the Board of Trustees in 1912, Rosenwald surprised his fellow Trustees by pledging $250,000 to erect a building to house the University's Geography Department, Rosenwald Hall. Funds needed to build a library for the University's research center in Luxor, Egypt, followed, and in 1916 Rosenwald gave $500,000 to help launch the University's new medical school. He supplemented that gift in 1925 with a million-dollar donation to be assigned at the discretion of his fellow Trustees, $700,000 of which the University applied in 1929-31 with Rosenwald's concurrence to erect Burton-Judson Courts, the elegant residence halls for men located just across the Midway. An additional $200,000 gift from Rosenwald was designated to support the construction of the new Chicago Lying-In Hospital in the University's growing medical center.