Behrend professor writing book about Rosenwald Fund and 'politics of knowledge'

A black-and-white portrait of the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald.

Julius Rosenwald, the former CEO of Sears, donated more than $50 million through fellowships and other giving. Much of that money was given to Black artists, scholars and religious leaders.

Credit: The Rosenwald Fund

ERIE, Pa. — Before he was awarded the Nobel Prize — the first for a Black American — the diplomat Ralph Bunche traveled to Africa, where he studied the French colonial administration in Dahomey and Togoland. The 1932 trip was sponsored by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, a foundation created by the former chief executive of Sears, Roebuck and Co. The funding came with conditions, however.

“The Rosenwald Fund fellowship program changed the face of American social thought,” said Emily Masghati, an assistant professor of history at Penn State Behrend. “The fund awarded over 1,000 fellowships in a time when support for African-American scholars was otherwise virtually nonexistent — but the power dynamics both enabled and limited new scholarship.”

Masghati is writing a book about the Rosenwald fellowship program, which began in 1928. The project, which is supported by a $101,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, will explore the collaboration, competition and conflicts between the Rosenwald fellows and administrators of the fund.

Rosenwald, the son of Jewish immigrants, was sympathetic to the inequities of Black life in Jim Crow America. He partnered with Booker T. Washington to help fund the construction of approximately 5,300 schools in the American south. The Rosenwald Fund expanded that giving, supporting a generation of Black artists, scholars and religious leaders, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Marian Anderson and W.E.B. DuBois.

With her book, Masghati said she aims to more clearly establish how decisions made by the fund’s administrators both supported and limited the careers of the fellows.

“My goal is to shine a light on the power dynamics that the fellows navigated,” she said. “To do that, we need to understand the lived experiences of this generation.”


‘No such thing as no-strings attached’

Bunche received a one-year Rosenwald fellowship in 1932. His research in Africa helped shape his dissertation at Harvard, which led to postdoctoral work at the London School of Economics. He later served at the State Department and the United Nations, where he was appointed to the Special Committee on Palestine.

In 1948, Bunche negotiated an armistice between Israel and the Arab States. The cease-fire that followed won him the Nobel Peace Prize.

His trip to Africa was a detour of sorts, dictated by administrators at the Rosenwald Fund. Bunche had originally requested funding to study in Brazil. The fund denied that request, however, worrying that Bunche might get “dangerous ideas” if exposed to the more fluid racial order in that country.

Rosenwald fellowships often came with conditions, Masghati said. The education scholar Horace Mann Bond, for example, received much-needed funding from the organization in his early career. That positioned him to collaborate with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which provided research for the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

The Brown case drew on two decades of Rosenwald-funded scholarship, Masghati said.

“The Legal Defense Fund tapped a cohort of specialized, highly trained social scientists, historians and lawyers who were able to commit themselves full-time to do the research for that case,” she said.

At one point, however, the fund pressured Bond — the father of civil rights activist Julian Bond — to water down his criticisms of philanthropic foundations in his textbook about Black education. The administrators did not want to expose themselves to that scrutiny, Masghati said.

“There is no such thing as no-strings-attached patronage,” she said. “Promotion and denial function as two sides of the same coin. These dynamics limited the kinds of ideas that were canonized, even as they made new scholarly endeavors possible.”


‘The politics of knowledge’

Rosenwald died in 1932. He had donated more than $50 million — close to $1 billion in today’s money — through fellowships and other giving.

The Rosenwald Fund would continue until 1948, run by Edwin Embree, a Yale graduate who had previously worked at the Rockefeller Foundation. He administered the fund through the lens of racial liberalism, which rejected overt racism and redistributive politics as a tool for addressing racial inequality.

Under Embree’s leadership, the fund was highly selective in its grant-making, Masghati said – and not always for the better. For much of the 1930s, for example, the organization withheld funding from the two most important racial advocacy organizations of that time: the NAACP and the National Urban League. Instead, Embree chose to support conferences and eugenics research, among other causes.

“By looking at what wasn’t funded, and why, we begin to see a more complicated story of the role of white patronage in African-American intellectual history,” Masghati said. “That’s what is particularly interesting to me.”

Masghati will continue her research during a teaching sabbatical this spring. She will spend time in the Rosenwald archives at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where the collection, which fills more than 500 boxes, is being digitized. The material is likely to generate new interest in Rosenwald and his philanthropy, once it is available online.

Masghati said she hopes her book will help scholars and others interested in the Rosenwald Fund better understand what she calls “the politics of knowledge production” and the ways that networks of power and prestige have shaped the academy. She also said she hopes to establish a model for how to read and interpret the Rosenwald Fund archive.

“It is critical that we properly contextualize the Rosenwald Fund,” she said. “Otherwise, we risk reproducing the partial worldview of elite foundation officials. The stories that foundation officials tell about their work are strategic choices to be analyzed, not accepted at face-value. Institutional records never tell the full story, so working with these records means training yourself to look for what is missing.”