Edith Rosenwald Stern, philanthropist, community leader, and civil rights activist, was born in Chicago, but resided in New Orleans after marrying business and community leader Edgar Stern. It was in New Orleans and beyond that she left her legacy of commitment to social justice.
Born into the Rosenwald family on May 21, 1895, she inherited more than financial resources from her father, Julius Rosenwald, builder of the Sears, Roebuck retail empire, and her mother, Augusta Nusbaum Rosenwald, matriarch of formidable clan. With her personal involvement, resources, and energy, Edith Rosenwald Stern perpetuated her father’s deep interest in social justice, particularly the support of educational institutions serving African Americans. Julius Rosenwald believed in using his wealth and personal influence to address societal inequities and to empower those most distressed by the structural inadequacies of American society. Although there have been much greater American fortunes, the personal commitment of the Rosenwald-Stern family increased the value of their philanthropy exponentially.
When Edith Stern identified a need, she created a solution and engaged others in her cause. The Newcomb School was started when she sought a nurturing but stimulating preschool environment for her own children and their peers. Later, with similar dedication, she gathered other parents to establish The Country Day School.
As a Jew, she had empathy for other persecuted peoples, at the same time encouraging responsibility and empowerment with her philanthropy. Both she and Edgar Stern, in partnership with the African-American community, helped build Dillard University in New Orleans into a premier educational institution, extending the opportunity for high-quality education to four generations of black leaders. By leveraging their contributions with challenge grants, they engaged African-American churches and major American foundations. That technique, at once giving and challenging others to contribute, helped build many institutions in New Orleans and beyond.
Voter education and registration provided another means for Stern to contribute to social justice and equality. Intolerant of the abuses in voting rights in New Orleans, she spearheaded the cleanup of the voting lists, actively organized voter registration, and brought voting machines into the public high schools so that the next generation of voters would be familiar with voting procedures.
Her involvement in civil rights could also be personal. Learning that there was an extraordinary singer in the choir at her cook’s church, she went to hear for herself. Determined to advance the young woman’s career, she invited the elite of New Orleans to a society dinner party in her home with singer Marian Anderson as guest of honor. No one declined her invitation.
With the same passion and strategy, she led the Jewish community in its philanthropy, encouraged her grandchildren to pursue their own charitable interests, and strongly supported Israel. In a 1973 interview for a video documentary, she attributed her attitude toward giving to her Jewish heritage, saying that “one is permitted to glean one’s field only once. Thereafter, others can partake.... One has to tithe.” She died in New Orleans on September 11, 1980.
AJYB 82:373; Hess, Anne [granddaughter]. Interview by author; Hess, Bill [grandson]. Interview by author; Klein, Gerda Weissmann. A Passion for Sharing (1984); Obituary. NYTimes, September 12, 1980, 3:2; Sosland, Jeffrey. “A School in Every County.” In A Partnership of Jewish Philanthropist Julius Rosenwald and American Black Communities (n.d.).
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Shulevitz, Marion. "Edith Rosenwald Stern." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 30, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/stern-edith-rosenwald>.