The definition of philanthropy often conjures up lofty ideals of elevated ways to use resources to serve the community, usually money, and is most often attributed to foundations, corporations and uber-wealthy individuals. It implies that large sums of money and/or assets are needed in order to be considered philanthropic. Dr. C. Erick Lincoln, Race Scholar and author of several of the most important scholarly works on the religious experience of black Americans,1 updated the term in 1999 to include “voluntary transfer of significant values identified with the self, or an extension of the self to other entities perceived as wanting.”2 More important, this definition includes the many ways in which the African American community managed to fly under the radar, and erroneously get labeled as non-philanthropic. With this essay, I want to dispel the myth that African Americans are not part of the philanthropic landscape, and illustrate that they are, and historically have always been, amongst the most generous givers of vast amounts of time and resources.
With 20% of households with incomes less than $20,000, according to Taking the Pulse of Black America in Ebony Magazine, November 2011, it is no wonder that the participation of African Americans in philanthropy seem non-existent. With a more-inclusive definition of the term, according to Dr. Emmett D. Carson, who heads the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which has $1.9 billion in assets, philanthropy has been “a survival mechanism”3 almost from the beginning. He goes on to say, “At many points in our history we lacked access to the capital of mainstream society, so we have had to cultivate our own charitable resources to fuel our civic efforts.”4
African Americans have historically given to the church. While true, it’s misleading; due in part, to the lack of understanding about the significance of what church and religion meant, and still means to them. During slavery, the church was the place where African Americans could safely meet to discuss issues that affected their community. African Americans turned to themselves to “educate the masses of their people, care for the needy, facilitate economic development, and address political concerns” largely through their churches.5
African American adherence to religion provided the much-needed hope and impetus necessary to counter the horrors of slavery, segregation, and later Jim Crow. The church was the safest and most central haven to funnel information and funds. With a broader definition of the term philanthropy, it’s evident that there is a tradition of giving inherent in the African American experience in America. A permeating tradition of loosely defined kinship is ever-present, originating with slaves brought over from the African continent.6
Many attribute the arrival of African Americans on the philanthropic scene with the amassment of wealth during the 20th century by more African Americans than in any other time in American history. Names like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby and a host of athletes and entertainers are the gold standard for what most think. However, it would be egregious to forget the contributions made by people like Harriet Tubman, Paul Cuffee, Madame C. J. Walker, Ella Baker, and Alphonse Fletcher, Jr., to name a few. While Tubman dedicated her life to guiding slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad with just the use of her wits and a gun; Paul Cuffee built a lucrative shipping empire during the 18th century, established the first racially integrated school in Westport, Massachusetts, and used his fleet to re-establish blacks in Sierra Leone. He helped to establish the Free Society of Sierra Leone that provided financial support for the colony.
At the turn of the 20th century, Madame C. J. Walker revolutionized the black beauty industry and built a thriving business that provided training and employment for African American women nationwide, making her one of the first and most successful African American businesswomen. Her work was tireless on behalf of racial uplift through large and numerous contributions of money. Her commitment was so deep that besides willing $96,000 to institutions and individuals of the race, she provided that for all time to come two-thirds of the annual net earnings of the company which bears her name should be given to Negro charities.7
When it comes to giving by blacks specifically, a Chronicle of Philanthropy report reveals that blacks give 25 percent more of their discretionary income to charity than do whites. For instance, blacks who make between $30,000 and $50,000 give an average of $528 annually, compared with $462 donated by whites in the same income range.8 African Americans consider much of their giving and serving to family, neighbors, and needy strangers as general obligation rather than philanthropy, which speaks to the necessity to widen the lens through which philanthropy is viewed.
The approach to volunteerism and community pride is often misunderstood, if not overlooked in African American communities when viewed through the lens of white America. Perception is everything. Ingrained beliefs hinder the best approaches and care. For this reason, as previously stated by Dr. Emmett D. Carson, necessity dictated the development and growth of African American philanthropy. With the recent accumulation of wealth, more attention has been garnered (i.e. Alphonse Fletcher’s $50 million endowment to further the ideals of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision in 2004), erroneously making it seem as if blacks just came onto the philanthropic scene. However, this newfound attention can serve as a bellwether to what we can expect, and finally dispel the myth that African Americans are not philanthropic, and better align us with Dr. Carson’s prediction that, “We’re about to see an enormous breakthrough in philanthropic institutions being created by African Americans.”9
- Eric V. Copage, “C. Eric Lincoln, Race Scholar, Is Dead at 75,” New York Times, 17 May 2000, 1.
- C. Erick Lincoln, “At the Crossroads,” The Proceedings of the First National Conference on Black Philanthropy, 1999.
- Ponchitta Pierce, “African American Philanthropy: A Deep-Rooted Tradition Continues to Grow,” Carnegie Reporter, Spring 2008, vo. 4/no. 4, 2.
- Ibid, 2.
- Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1993), 5.
- Cheryl Hall-Russell and Robert H. Kasberg, African American Traditions of Giving and Serving: A Midwest Perspective (Indianapolis: The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University 1997), 5.
- Unknown, “Madame Walker Lives on in Enterprise She Established,” 18.
- Pierce, 11.
- Ibid, 1.
Chappell, Kevin. “Taking the Pulse of Black America.” Ebony Magazine, November 2011, 107.
Copage, Eric V. “C. Eric Lincoln, Race Scholar, Is Dead at 75.” New York Times, 17 May 2000, 1.
Hall-Russell, Cheryl and Robert H. Kasberg. African American Traditions of Giving and Serving: A Midwest Perspective. Indianapolis: The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University 1997.
Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1993.
Lincoln , C. Erick. “At the Crossroads.” The Proceedings of the First National Conference on Black Philanthropy, 1999.
Ponchitta Pierce. “African American Philanthropy: A Deep-Rooted Tradition Continues to Grow.” Carnegie Reporter, Spring 2008, vo. 4/no. 4, 2.
Unknown. “Madam Walker Lives on in Enterprise She Established in 1905.” The New York Amsterdam News, 7 July 1926, 18.