Philanthropy and Foundations

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Philanthropy and Foundations

The beginnings of organized African-American philanthropy can be traced to the early black churches, mutual aid societies, and fraternal organizations among free blacks in the late eighteenth century. The introduction of black self-help organizations resulted from the social and economic inequalities faced by free blacks in northern cities when the state provided little or no social welfare assistance. This spontaneous social organization reflected African-Americans' distinctive culture. Robert Harris (1979), a scholar of early black self-help organizations, stated, "The benevolent societies combined African heritage with American conditions to transform an amorphous free black population into a distinct free black community. In the final analysis, the early black benevolent society functioned as the wellspring for Afro-American institutional life."

The first known black American mutual aid organization was the African Union Society of Newport, Rhode Island, founded in 1780. The society was primarily concerned with the moral rectitude of free blacks and provided material assistance by recording births, deaths, and marriages and by seeking to apprentice black youths in useful trades. Another of the earliest mutual aid organizations, African Lodge No. 459 (later renamed the Prince Hall Grand Masons), was founded in Boston in 1787 in Prince Hall and was the first black Freemasonic society. The lodge provided members with protection against re-enslavement due to delinquent debts and provided the poor with food and other provisions. The Free African Society of Philadelphia was founded in 1787 to provide material aid to free blacks and support to religious institutions.

In the first half of the nineteenth century black churches and mutual aid organizations were active in the abolitionist movement, including the Underground Railroad, by raising money, donating goods and services, and volunteering their time on behalf of escaping slaves. Through collective action, groups such as the International Order of Twelve Knights, the Daughters of Tabor, and the Knights of Liberty, all founded in the 1850s, were responsible for liberating and sheltering thousands of slaves through the Underground Railroad. Collectively, these organizations used the financial and volunteer contributions of black Americans to provide other black Americans with social services that they could not obtain through government or from most white charitable organizations, though some white philanthropies, such as the various state abolition societies, were important sources of financial and moral support for African Americans. Further, since the leaders of these organizations, in particular black ministers, received financial support directly from the black community, they could speak freely about the community's aspirations for equal rights without fear of financial repercussions from those who disagreed with their positions.

In most of the South before Emancipation there existed a de facto ban on black mutual aid societies, and Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina legally prohibited such organizations. Despite the hostility, southern free blacks successfully maintained benevolent societies. Among such groups were the Resolute Beneficial Society of Washington, D.C., established in 1818; the Burying Ground Society and the Beneficial Society of Richmond, Virginia, both formed in 1815; and the Brown Fellowship Society (1790), Christian Benevolent Society (1839), Humane Brotherhood (1843), and Unity and Friendship Society (1844), all of Charleston, South Carolina.

Before the Civil War most black philanthropy was concentrated at the local level. In 1835 there were forty black mutual aid organizations in Baltimore and eighty in Philadelphia. In the latter city in 1848 almost half of the adult free black population was affiliated with African-American philanthropic societies.

Some of the early black benevolent societies included both men and women in the same organization. The African Benevolent Society of Newport, Rhode Island, founded in 1808, accepted free blacks without regard to gender, as did the African Marine Fund of New York City. In general, women belonged only to organizations that stressed education, but were not ordinarily members of other types of benevolent societies. There were, however, female auxiliaries for most of the groups, and black women played a key role in literary associations.

Notwithstanding the separate and unequal living conditions that characterized the lives of black and white Americans during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is important to note that many black organizations also provided the larger white society with services and other assistance during times of emergency. For example, during the great plague that struck Philadelphia in 1793, the Free African Society provided the entire city with extensive nursing and burial services.

Following the Civil War, there was a national concern to establish programs that would enable the freed slaves, many of whom could not read or write, to become self-sufficient. The Freedmen's Bureau, officially known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, was formed by Congress in 1865, and along with nearly a hundred independent volunteer freedmen's aid societies, sought to provide assistance to both ex-slaves and impoverished whites. During the bureau's seven-year tenure, it established more than four thousand schools and forty hospitals, as well as distributed free food.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, philanthropists from the North played a crucial role in disbursing aid to African Americans in the South. Notwithstanding the combined efforts of the bureau and the freedmen societies, when Julius Rosenwald started his eponymous fund in 1917, there was not a single standard public eighth grade or high school in the South for black children. From 1913 to 1932 Rosenwald helped establish 5,357 public schools in fifteen southern states. A key feature of this effort was that in each case, the local black community contributed to the building of the schools by donating both money and labor. In later years the Rosenwald Fund would support fellowships for black schoolteachers, black hospitals, and efforts to improve black-white relations.

By far the most influential foundation in shaping black educational opportunities was the General Education Board (GEB), founded by John D. Rockefeller in 1902. The GEB was involved in all aspects of black education during the early to mid-1900s, including encouraging consolidation of one-room schools, training teachers, and providing transportation for students in rural areas. From 1902 to 1960 the GEB distributed $62.5 million in support of black education. In addition to the Rosenwald Fund and the General Education Board, other, smaller philanthropic institutions that were active in promoting educational opportunities for black Americans include the Peabody Fund, the Slater Fund, and the Phelps-Stokes Fund.

The Peabody Fund, established in 1867, was intended to popularize the idea of universal education as a means of integrating ex-slaves and poor whites into the emerging bourgeois southern order. The organizers of the fund were concerned about the dangers of an unruly, uneducated class of paupers in a society lacking a significant public welfare structure. The Peabody Fund gave considerable material aid to southern schools until 1910, when it was merged into the Slater Fund, which had pursued a similar program of educational promotion since its founding in 1882.

The Slater Fund particularly applauded and assisted the work of black educators such as Booker T. Washington, who accepted the racial status quo in the South and insisted that the primary means of black advancement was through the acquisition of industrial skills. From 1891 to 1911 the Slater Fund supported a few model industrial schools such as Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) and Washington's Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), eventually giving these two schools half of its annual appropriations. After 1911 the fund pursued its interest in manual training by preparing black teachers in county training schools; it helped build 384 such schools in the South over the next two decades. In 1937 the Slater Fund merged with the Jeanes Fund and the Virginia Randolph Fund to form the Atlanta-based Southern Education Fund, which still exists.

Another important source of philanthropy for black education, the Phelps-Stokes Fund, was founded in 1911 to administer a bequest from Caroline Phelps Stokes to increase educational opportunities for black Americans, Native Americans, and poor whites. The fund made several small grants to black educational institutions from its founding until the 1940s, when its emphasis shifted to supporting historically black colleges through the Cooperative College Development Program. Through this program the fund dispensed more than $6 million to black colleges and helped establish the United Negro College Fund in 1943, a joint fund-raising effort by over thirty historically black colleges and universities.

As the role of foundations in African-American education grew, at least two issues arose. First, what was the appropriate type of education for black Americans? Most foundations began their efforts by supporting industrial education to provide training for specific, often rural, trade skills rather than a liberal arts education in the humanities or sciences. With these interests in mind, foundations provided support for Tuskegee Institute and Hampton Institute, among others. (The Rosenwald Fund was largely an exception to this.) Second, throughout the Jim Crow era, foundations generally accepted the idea of separate schools for black Americans. To be sure, funding for integrated education in the early twentieth-century South was a near impossibility. As a result, foundations sought to develop and strengthen separate black educational institutions rather than encourage integrated institutions. An additional problem was the attempt of the foundations to placate the white South, and the conviction of many foundation leaders that academic education for African Americans was pointless. For example, in 1899, a trustee of the GEB was quoted as stating, "The Negro should not be educated out of his environment. Industrial work is his salvation. Except in the rarest of instances, I am bitterly opposed to the so-called higher education of Negroes." Many foundations relied on their experiences in helping to shape black education in the United States as a guide for developing similar educational programs in Africa.

By the 1930s many of the remaining foundations were paying greater attention to academic instruction. In addition, several foundations supported comprehensive studies of the adverse socioeconomic conditions and legal barriers confronting African Americans. For example, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund financed The Negro in American Civilization (1930), the Phelps-Stokes Fund supported a never-completed encyclopedia project on black Americans (1930s and 1940s), and the Julius Rosenwald Fund provided support for Alien Americans: A Study of Race Relations (1936). The most influential study of black America in the middle decades of the century, An American Dilemma (1944), by the Swedish-born scholar Gunnar Myrdal, was supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The report concluded that the American dilemma was the inconsistency between the stated belief in equality and social justice for all and the documented legal barriers that prevented black Americans from fully participating in American society.

The strategies employed by foundations to promote black-white relations have changed markedly over time. Concerned that black Americans be sufficiently moral and upstanding, foundations in the early twentieth century supported the Negro Boy Scouts, the National Negro Business League, and, later, the National Urban League. However, beginning at the end of World War I, as foundations began to recognize black Americans' long-standing desire for equality and began to fear that continued denial of their aspirations might encourage them to become communists, foundations became more interested in supporting black and white cooperation. In 1919 the Rosenwald Fund helped to create the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) to bring together black and white community leaders throughout the South. The fund also provided support for the American Council on Race Relations and the Southern Regional Council, the successor to the CIC.

Notwithstanding the agendas of white philanthropic institutions, African Americans established and supported their own evolving needs and aspirations. Black fraternal orders that emerged close to the turn of the twentieth century have over time adapted to modern needs. One such organization, the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles Mystic Shrine, Inc., was founded in 1893. With 47,000 members in the 1990s, this organization runs programs to address delinquency and drug abuse, and supports medical research on health problems of special concern to blacks. Another, the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World, was founded in 1898, and claimed 450,000 members. It supports a variety of causes, including scholarships, for which it raises a million dollars annually. Despite such activities, however, many fraternal orders have experienced dramatic declines in membership. Since the end of World War II, one alternative source of black philanthropy has been the growing ranks of collegiate associations. The eight largest black fraternities and sororities have a combined membership of well over 650,000. In terms of direct material aid, the black church has been the most enduring source of black self-help. Perhaps the best-known example of church welfare was the "Peace Mission" in New York's Harlem, operated during the Great Depression, by Father Divine. Father Divine operated grocery stores nationwide, fed the hungry full meals for ten cents apiece at his own restaurants, and published and distributed newspapers and magazines for which his followers often volunteered to work. He was also known for the free meals he provided the hungry on Sundays.

As the civil rights movement came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, black Americans mobilized their collective financial and volunteer resources, along with those of their supporters, to challenge and eventually overturn laws that sanctioned keeping black and white Americans separate but equal. The black church, with its independent leaders, as exemplified by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and T. J. Jemison, harnessed and directed a national effort involving several hundred thousand children, women, and men to volunteer in marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations. Moreover, the nonprofit civil rights organizations that gained new prominence during this time, for example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), have been replicated by other groups concerned with ensuring equality for women and Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans, as well as gays and lesbians.

White foundations not only provided some support for many of the civil rights organizations but also began to fund projects aimed at directly promoting black socioeconomic advancement through education and redistributive social programs. In particular, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations were at the forefront of these efforts. The Rockefeller Foundation launched its equal opportunity program, which primarily focused on supporting integrated higher education. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, grants were awarded to predominantly white colleges located throughout the United States to recruit minority students.

Stating that full equality for black Americans was the most urgent concern challenging the country, the Ford Foundation launched an unprecedented effort to improve the socioeconomic and political conditions of the urban poor, among whom black Americans were disproportionately represented. From 1960 to 1970 the Ford Foundation awarded more than $25 million for its Great Cities School Improvement project, which focused on assisting major urban school districts to become more responsive to the needs of black children with rural backgrounds, and the Gray Areas project, which focused on the health, housing, welfare, and employment needs of residents in urban cities. The Gray Areas project served as the model for several of the education and training provisions that were later authorized in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Ford also established major programs to support civil rights organizations, voter education, black colleges, and community economic development.

The Ford Foundation's activism was not without repercussions. For example, in 1967 a Ford-supported demonstration project in New York to encourage local community control of public school districts led to school strikes as the local councils, teachers' unions, and school board struggled for control of the public school system. Similarly, when Carl Stokes was elected as the first black mayor of Cleveland, many charged that the election outcome had been influenced by Ford-sponsored voter education programs. The concern that foundations had undue influence in public matters led in part to the Tax Reform Act of 1969, which placed new restrictions on foundation activities in several areas, including voter registration.

Before the 1970s few black Americans were on the boards or professional staffs of foundations. However, as a consequence of the civil rights movement, black Americans are now represented, albeit in small numbers, at every level within foundations and are key decision makers in determining how limited philanthropic resources will be allocated to address unlimited needs. For example, Franklin A. Thomas, a black American, was named president of the Ford Foundation, the largest foundation in the United States, in 1979. As a result of these developments, the black community has both a continuing tradition of philanthropy and self-help within its own community and has started a new chapter as individual black Americans begin to help shape the funding priorities of older philanthropic institutions in helping everyone.

In the 1970s black Americans began to develop new types of charitable organizations to confront both old and new problems. Despite significant socioeconomic progress among black Americans, a significant proportion continued to require a broad range of social services. In addition, the increased support of black charitable organizations by government agencies and foundations led some to question whether these organizations could be as independent to advocate on behalf of black Americans' interests as the black church had in the past.

Recognizing the need to develop new ways to provide an independent, black-controlled funding source to support black-run social protest and social service organizations, a number of black fund-raising organizations emerged in various cities across the United States to raise money from African Americans to support black organizations. In 1972 a number of these groups formed the National Black United Fund (NBUF). NBUF's mission was to develop a fund-raising mechanism that would allow them to raise money primarily from African Americans throughout a particular city and distribute that money to black organizations.

For many years, one national charitable organization, the United Way, had sole access to the federal government's work-site charitable payroll deduction campaigns. Through these campaigns, federal workers agreed to contribute a given amount of money from each paycheck to charity. In the early 1980s NBUF won a series of Supreme Court cases that challenged United Way's monopoly to access the federal government's work-site charitable payroll deduction campaigns and was allowed to participate in these campaigns. Later, NBUF began to gain access to the campaigns of private employers.

NBUF's success has enabled a wide range of women, minorities, and special interest groups to develop identical organizations to raise money for their causes. Further, the development of black charitable organizations has resulted in greater responsiveness to the black community from all charitable organizations seeking contributions from black Americans.

Established in 1999, the National Center for Black Philanthropy's goal is to promote and strengthen the participation of African Americans in all aspects of philanthropy, educate the public about black philanthropy, and document the contributions of black philanthropy to American society. The organization holds national and regional conferences involving philanthropists, scholars, foundation executives, and fund-raisers.

Perhaps the most interesting new development is the establishment of foundations by African Americans. For example, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, named after the man who broke the color barrier of organized baseball in 1947, focuses on supporting educational programs for youth. More than two hundred years after blacks had to rely on pooling their modest contributions to develop a different form of philanthropy, a growing number of black Americans have amassed enough wealth to create their own foundations and to underwrite major charitable activities. For example, businessman Reginald Lewis made a contribution of $2 million to Howard University and $3 million to Harvard University, among many other contributions. Entertainer Bill Cosby and his wife Camille made a historic gift of $20 million to Spelman College as one of their many charitable contributions.

Two other extraordinary gifts suggest that black philanthropy is on the cusp of a new renaissance. In 1995, at the age of eighty-seven, Oseola McCarty donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi for a scholarship program with a preference for deserving African-American students. What made this gift so remarkable is that McCarty saved the money from her lifelong job washing and ironing clothes. Alphonse Fletcher, Jr., a thirty-eight-year-old Wall Street money manager, made headlines when he pledged $50 million in recognition of the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. At age twenty-eight, he previously made a gift of $4.5 million to Harvard University, his alma mater.

The efforts of African Americans to help themselves have been advanced or hindered by the funding priorities of wealthy white philanthropists and foundations. Of the thousands of foundations that have been created in the United States, only a few have had a sustained interest in social justice and equality for black Americans. Like the evolution of black philanthropy, white foundations have awarded or declined support for projects based, in part, on the social norms and values that were accepted at a given time.

A new development has been the interest of some foundationsCharles Stewart Mott, Ford, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Carnegie Mellon, and W. K. Kelloggin championing the importance of supporting ethnic- and gender-based philanthropy, including black philanthropy.

The diverse mix of approaches that African Americans have developed indicates that black philanthropy will remain an important vehicle through which the community will continue to help itself and others. America's changing demographics and unprecedented intergenerational wealth transfer, conservatively estimated at $41 trillion, will only magnify black philanthropy's importance.

See also Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands; Father Divine; Hall, Prince; Hampton Institute; Mutual Aid Societies; Tuskegee University; Underground Railroad; United Negro College Fund


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emmett d. carson (1996)
Updated by author 2005

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Philanthropy and Foundations

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