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Sears, Roebuck and Co.'s Role in Improving Black Education

Many black Americans are not familiar with the role that Sears, Roebuck and Co. has played in enhancing education for blacks over the past 40 years.

Sears is one of the largest corporate donors to the United Negro College Fund's annual campaign and to the UNCF's capital development program. Between 1941 and 1969, Sears provided college scholarships for well over 2,500 students through its black land grant college scholarship program. And Sears has helped 193 high school students through gifts to A Better Chance, Inc. (ABC), a national organization that helps talented black youths obtain the best high school preparation for college.

Black citizens undoubtedly have heard much about the works of Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears from 1908 to 1924, then chairman from 1924 to 1932. Rosenwald gave millions of dollars of his own money to help build black schools and give aid to black colleges, primarily in the South, between 1913 and 1948.

That effort was Rosenwald's own, made through a foundation he established. His philanthropic years coincided with and extended beyond his years in top Sears management, but his impressive donations were made out of his own earnings.

However, Sears itself has devoted part of its corporate giving to helping blacks. Aid to black education comes primarily through The Sears-Roebuck Foundation.

Much of that help has gone unrecorded, because it was aid given through programs that were not labeled "For Blacks Only." But Sears records do give some idea of how the company and its foundation have helped groups dedicated to improving educational opportunities for blacks.

The agricultural scholarship program was the first to be established. From 1941 to 1969, Sears-Roebuck Foundation funds provided scholarships to 2,100 young men to study agriculture at black land grant colleges. Farming was the South's economic staple in those years, and Sears started its program "to support and encourage sounds economic development of Negro farm youth in the South."

The second black land grant college scholarship program started by The Sears Foundation was begun in 1954 and maintained through 1969. That program provided scholarships for young women to study home economics. Scholarships were given to 325 students.

In 1966, the Foundation started its third black land grant college scholarship program, this one for both male and female black students. Called the Presidential Scholarship Program, the fund provided minimum grants of $1,000 to black land grant colleges toward scholarships for students selected by each college's president. Sears gave $154,850 to colleges in the program's six years.

The land grant colleges were established as institutions of higher learning in rural areas, and most of them were committed to providing education relating to agriculture. Sears Foundation gifts reflected the Foundation's interest and involvement in that sector - the predominant one for many years - of the American economy.

As the United States became a more urbanized country, the Foundation's educational focus shifted to the cities and the economic and educational problems of their black residents.

In 1967, The Sears Foundation began contributing to A Better Chance, Inc. (ABC), a Boston-based national organization. ABC's program aims to help prepare talented urban minority youngsters, most from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, for college. ABC enrolls such students for the remaining two to four years of their secondary education in high schools with top college preparatory courses.

The 193 past or current ABC students who have been helped by The Sears Foundation have come from Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, Nashville, Oakland, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Two other lesser-known programs have received gifts from The Sears Foundation. The National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students received $51,000 from the Foundation between 1959 and 1971. The Service provides supplementary scholarship aid and college advisory services for deprived students, primarily blacks, already enrolled or wishing to enroll in integrated or predominantly black colleges and universities.

Provident Hospital, on Chicago's South Side, received $15,500 from The Sears Foundation between 1946 and 1969. Much of that aid helped give free medical treatment to the needy, but part went to the hospital's training school, which taught qualified blacks.

While these programs may be unfamiliar to blacks, another college program supported by the Foundation probably is much more well known: the United Negro College Fund.

The Sears Foundation has been contributing to 40 of the 41 UNCF schools since 1955. Through 1979, the Foundation's gifts added up to approximately $774,000 in unrestricted funds for the UNCF. (The school not included in the Sears donation is a seminary; Sears does not make donations to schools of theology.)

Addtionally, in 1978, the foundation pledged $500,000 to the UNCF's capital development program, a donation that will be completed with the Foundation's gift in 1980.

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