The economic downturn has affected the ability of many families to pay college tuition; among the hardest hit are African Americans. Recognizing the immediacy of the need, Janet Rosenwald Becker and her husband Bernard Becker have donated close to $2 million to Sarah Lawrence College to create an endowed scholarship fund for African American students. In making the gift, Bernard Becker said: "We knew we were going to support this institution in our will. But we also saw that the need is now. So, we decided not to wait."
Giving educational support to African Americans has run in this family. Janet Becker is the granddaughter of Julius Rosenwald, who, in 1912 as president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, was approached by Booker T. Washington with an idea that would result in the building of more than 5,000 schools in 15 states, for the children and grandchildren of slaves. For his role in creating a foundation that provided seed grants for these schools, Rosenwald was called the “most influential philanthropic force that came to the aid of Negroes at that time.” Becker’s father, Lessing Rosenwald, continued in his father’s footsteps as chairman of the board of trustees of the Julius Rosenwald Fund from the time of his father's death in 1932 until 1948 when the fund was terminated.
A 1952 alumna of the College, Janet Becker has remained an active participant in the Sarah Lawrence community, receiving an award for service to the College in 2002. Her earlier gift-giving over the course of 30 years focused on expendable scholarship aid for African American students.
“The support Janet Becker and her husband, Bernard, have given to Sarah Lawrence over the years is exemplary,” said Karen Lawrence, president of the College. “The purpose of this gift meets one of our greatest needs—ensuring the diversity of our student population—and it comes at a time when it is needed most.”
Until 2008, the Beckers had planned to leave this new, single-sum gift as a bequest. However, in establishing this endowed fund at this time, through the family’s Horncrest Foundation, the Beckers acknowledged that the benefits of such a gift were greatly needed as so many Americans struggle with the harsh realities of the “great recession.”
“Janet and Bernard recognized that the turn in the economy was going to have a seriously negative effect on just the population they want to help and that more good would come of their gift if they endowed a scholarship fund now, than leaving it until after they’re gone,” said Lawrence Blau, Horncrest Foundation’s financial manager.
Janet Becker points to the schools her grandfather built as her inspiration. His is a story that came close to being forgotten, the buildings falling into disrepair, their original purpose becoming obsolete as American public education was integrated. Fortunately, through a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation with grants from the Lowe’s Charitable and Educational Fund, a number of those schools are being restored as landmarks and re-purposed as community facilities.
“I can think of no better way to honor the groundbreaking work my grandfather did to insure that the descendents of American slaves would have access to education, than to help provide the kind of support that is needed by that cohort of college students in 2010,” said Becker. Nearly 100 years since the first of the Rosenwald schools was founded, a large percentage of African American college students are denied access to their colleges of choice for lack of adequate financial support.
A smaller, but significant part of the Horncrest gift to Sarah Lawrence is funding for the College’s Community Partnerships program, which matches student interest in community service and advocacy with local community needs.