400 Years of Black Philanthropy, From the Days of Slavery to the 2019 Morehouse Graduation

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When African American businessman Robert F. Smith declared during a Morehouse College commencement speech that he would pay off the student loan debt of the entire 2019 graduating class of about 400 young men from the historically black school, he provoked a frenzy. Footage of the jubilant graduates immediately went viral, with an outpouring of hot takes on what the news meant.

As a historian of philanthropy, here’s what caught my eye: Smith said that he was making this roughly US$40 million gift on behalf of eight generations of his family with American roots.

On top of paying tribute to his ancestors, I see this generous act as an extension of the underappreciated heritage of African American philanthropy that began soon after the first enslaved Africans disembarked in Virginia in 1619.

Robert F. Smith told the Morehouse College class of 2019 to applaud their own families and communities for helping them succeed.

Strong tradition

The West African people put into slavery brought cultures of giving and sharing with them across the Atlantic. In 1847, for example, enslaved Africans in Richmond, Virginia, donated money through their church to Ireland’s potato famine relief efforts. I believe that their ways of looking after others and pooling resources to survive forms the basis of giving by African Americans today.

And while Oprah Winfrey and basketball star LeBron James bring visibility to black philanthropy in unique ways, it’s important to realize that they contribute only a small share of the at least $11 billion African Americans give to charities each year.

Despite the toll that four centuries of slavery and discrimination have taken on black earnings, African Americans regardless of their economic status have long given generously of their money and time.

Black women

I have written extensively about the historical roles of black women as the creators, innovators and purveyors of African American philanthropy. In my forthcoming book about Madam C.J. Walker, the early 20th-century black entrepreneur philanthropist commonly known as the first American self-made female millionaire, I’ve documented this history through her gifts and those made by her peers – other black businesswomen and leaders of clubs.

Before Smith’s announcement, Winfrey had already donated at least $12 million to Morehouse, enabling more than 400 men to graduate debt-free. A $21 million gift to establish the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture made her its biggest donor – Smith’s own $20 million gift was also among the top three.

Countless other black women, from all walks of life, give of their time, talent and money generously through their churches, clubs, sororities and giving circles – groups of people who pool charitable money for nonprofits they collectively choose to support. Black women also made August Black Philanthropy Month, an international celebration of giving by people descended from Africa.

Smith has said his mother, Sylvia Myrna Smith, set him on a path of generosity. A high school principal, she instilled in him the habit of giving through her annual ritual of donating to the United Negro College Fund to help young people of color gain a

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