“If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives.”
Biddy Mason, entrepreneur and philanthropist
Celebrated as “the great melting pot,” our country is a proud nation of immigrants. While many Americans are descended from those who came here seeking liberty and a better way of life, African Americans have a different story. Stolen from west and central Africa and forcibly brought to America starting in 1619, African Americans endured centuries of slavery, oppression and injustice.
Every February, America now celebrates Black History Month, a time to reflect on how African Americans threw off the chains of slavery, fought for equality and made notable impacts on the country. African American history is not just American history, it is a history of how philanthropy changed communities and the country.
Despite enormous economic disparities, philanthropy is embedded in African American culture. In fact, a study by the Urban Institute found that African Americans contribute the highest percentage of their income to philanthropic causes among all American ethnic groups. As a way of creating abundance with meager resources, African Americans have historically pooled their funds by giving to and through churches, fraternal organizations, clubs and community giving circles.
There have also always been African Americans who were able to overcome tremendous odds to build great personal wealth. Many of these changemakers used their wealth to impact their communities through philanthropy. A few examples of African American philanthropists throughout the years include:
- Biddy Mason (1818-1891) was born into slavery in Hancock County, Georgia, in 1818. After receiving her freedom, she went on to become a nurse and a successful California real estate entrepreneur. Her generosity led to establishing a traveler’s aid center, a school and day care center for African American children and the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, the city’s first African American church.
- Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) became America’s first self-made female millionaire by developing a line of cosmetics and hair care for African American women. She was born in Louisiana in 1867, and before her death in 1919 she had made her mark as a philanthropist and activist. Walker raised funds to establish a branch of the YMCA in Indianapolis, contributed greatly to a school for African American girls, supported the NAACP and was a patron of the arts.
- A.G. Gaston (1892-1996) was born to an enslaved family but went on to establish several highly successful businesses in Alabama that included an insurance company, business college, a motel, a funeral home, a construction company and a bank. This multimillionaire donated space in his facilities for civil rights activists meetings and gave many of his personal and business properties to charity. He is also known for paying legal bills tied to court cases of civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Ursula Burns (1958-), a former CEO of Xerox, worked her way up from an intern to become one of the first African American women CEOs of a Fortune 500 company. In 2015, she was named the most powerful woman in the world by Forbes. Her philanthropy has helped found Change the Equation, a nonprofit that advances STEM education. Her impact continues to be felt through her board leadership for the Ford Foundation for Social Justices and many other nonprofits.
- Robert F. Smith (1962-) is a billionaire and the founder, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Companies, a private equity and venture capital company. In January 2019, he donated $1.5 million to Morehouse College for the establishment of a scholarship and park. In May of the same year, Smith announced that he and his family would pay off the entire student loan debt for the 396 students of the 2019 Morehouse College. He also donated $15 million to Cornell University in 2022 to provide financial aid to engineering students from underrepresented communities.
African-American philanthropy, like Black history, illustrates the kindness and generosity of a resilient people who have fought and continue to fight for freedom.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yolanda brings international experience to Lighthouse Counsel where she served as the Development Director of Queen’s College, and most recently as the Executive Director for Hands For Hunger in Nassau, Bahamas. She is active with her church, Bahamas Harvest Church, and co-leads an organization focused on teaching leadership, providing mentors and promoting high self-esteem in girls of color.