Most media platforms have tried to paint the African American people as an up-and-coming group in the world of philanthropy. However, for hundreds of years, communities of color have been involved in charitable giving. The roots of black altruism found in modern African American cultures stemmed from the kinship system of the people of West Africa when they were brought to be enslaved people in America.
The kinship system is a tradition tightly knitted in African cultures and is still practiced. It means helping your neighbors when they are in need. This tradition soon became a means of survival for the black community as we helped each other pool resources and showed activism in our resistance to racial discrimination and emancipation from the rigid anti-black laws enforced by Jim Crow.
Modern Black-philanthropy began when there was a need to support each other, especially after the end of slavery. Suddenly acts of violent racial discrimination and segregation forced us to turn to each other for help. The church became a significant point of benevolence for people of color through fundraising to fund education, food, healthcare, and other acts of social service. This gave rise to many black colleges and institutions of higher learning found today. It also became the main focus of charitable giving through scholarships to help fund black education.
Black Philanthropy Is a Legacy
Philanthropic giving seen by the African American community is the backbone of many movements and activism campaigns. It slowly became a way of fighting for their seat at the table. Philanthropy among the communities of color always goes back to the idea of family beyond sharing the same genetic information.
This togetherness helped African Americans fight to gain freedom from servitude, racial apartheidism, the Abolitionist Movement, the Civil Rights movement, desegregation, registering black voters etc. Without the help of philanthropists like A. G. Gaston, Madam CJ Walker, James Forten, and Tommy LaFon, these issues would never have been brought to light. They helped their communities dig their way through some of the most challenging times in history and helped shape the fabric of today’s American culture.
According to Tyron Freeman, African American giving is firmly grounded in a collective sense of social responsibility and commitment to society, including the larger fight for emancipation. It is founded on the spirit of benevolence as a representation of humility, humanity, and individuality. As a result, anyone can contribute. One does not need to be wealthy or limited to monetary gifts to express generosity. Whatever you have that could be useful to others should be shared for the greater good and communal uplift.
Philanthropy has long been a part of African Americans’ legacy. Nonetheless, Black communities are frequently overlooked in discussions about donations and giving back to the needy. So many factors in history contribute to this notion. For four hundred years, African American families have been subject to enslavement, exclusion, and discriminatory treatment.
Even today, we are still encountering acts of racial inequality and injustice. The slave trade and the Jim Crow era left Black families centuries behind white families in terms of wealth accumulation. It did not help that there was bias embedded in the public policies that shaped housing, schooling, and economic organizations. This resulted in a situation in which many Black families are only now beginning to accumulate wealth. Despite this, African Americans continue to give at a higher rate. Black-philanthropy has had a significant impact in the history of the world, and it is absolutely essential that its legacy be recognized.
The Meaning of Black Giving
For centuries, communities of color have aimed to redefine philanthropy. Most people understand philanthropy as an act of altruism where generous amounts of money are involved. Does this mean that you have to be rich to give to the less fortunate? Madam CJ Walker envisioned a different definition of the word. Her actions as a philanthropist helped shape the concept of charity and resemble what we know today as the Giving Pledge and the Giving Circle. Her idea of charitable giving meant continuous donations throughout her life and as she continued to acquire more wealth.
The language we use to describe giving habits becomes part of a group’s collective identity. Simply put, the Black community has grown to embody how they describe ourselves as a result of the language we use. At its heart, charitable giving is an unwritten agreement dedicated to ensuring the mutual betterment and development of the public. Regardless, Black communities show a diminished desire to identify themselves as philanthropists.
Most people often assume that African Americans are always the recipients of charitable donations and fundraisers rather than as people who are fully involved in the act of philanthropy. By deconstructing-philanthropy and recognizing a more inclusive definition of the act, we can better understand how the African American community has come together to creatively solve barriers to community development.
African Americans don’t believe that you need to have more in order to give. Our definition of charity and benevolence means a responsibility towards your community that requires a sacrifice out of love – neighbors in need helping their fellow neighbors in need. This is probably why Black-philanthropy has only recently gained recognition, hence the need to redefine the meaning of giving. With this understanding, we are able to create inclusion for all people regardless of color and understand that there is more than one way to give. Unless this diversified form of giving is recognized, the meaning of Black-philanthropy will always be limited.
Black giving originated from the feeling of accountability and a willingness to empower and serve the community. This is why institutions supporting Black communities are driven to invest, support and encourage Black culture from the frontlines. The Black church is well known and recognized for its contributions to its community and as the foundation for the society of African Americans. The church gave African Americans hope, healing and refuge through every milestone in history. Some of history’s most significant movements and activism campaigns began as meetings in the church. Even today, churches in the Black community are considered a safe place where one can come to recollect and reorganize their thoughts and plans.
The Greatest Black Philanthropists
Understanding and celebrating the meaning of Black-philanthropy also means acknowledging important figures, both past and present, that helped shape its existence. Here are some of the stories of some of the most significant Black philanthropists of over time:
Madam C. J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker was an entrepreneur as well as a philanthropist. She quickly became one of the twentieth century’s most successful self-made millionaires. Walker, born in Sara Breedlove to formerly enslaved parents in Louisiana, was uneducated and used to do labor work such as being a laundress. When her hair started falling out as a result of a scalp ailment, she went on to found the haircare empire; Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.
She is also recorded as the first Black woman to become a millionaire and own a successful business in the 20th century. Her wealth status and continued activism allowed her to donate to charitable causes such as civil rights organizations, education, the church, the arts, and community groups. Her property became a gathering place for the African American community and was donated to charity after her death.
Tommy LaFon was a New Orleans businessman in the 19th century best known for his generous charitable giving and campaigns for black rights. He was born into a family of mixed race and acquired significant wealth by succeeding as a merchant and real estate agent.
He led a simple life and used his earnings to support abolitionist newspapers, art forms, children’s homes, and education institutions. He founded the Lafon Orphan Boys’ Asylum and the Home for Aged Colored Men and Women. He also contributed to funding the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Underground Railroad. As per his will, he donated money to local charities, hospitals, nursing homes, Straight University, and the Sisters of the Holy Family.
James Forten was a philanthropist and abolitionist in the colonial era. He was born into a free Black family in Philadelphia. He became Philadelphia’s best-selling sailmaker after serving on a ship during the American Revolutionary War. He earned a reputation as a savvy businessman. James Forten and Tommy LaFon were prominent members of the anti-slavery movement. They used their wealth to help fund the movement and finance abolitionist newspapers such as the Liberator. Among other vital accomplishments in his life, he was vice-president of the American Anti-Slavery Society. His children and grandchildren carried on his mantle by becoming civil rights activists after his death.
A. G. Gaston
Arthur George Gaston was born into a family of formerly enslaved people in Alabama. Arthur Gaston established several businesses in Alabama after serving in WWI and starting his mining career. His businesses included an insurance agency, building company, funeral home, motel, financial institution, and college of business. Gaston was a multimillionaire who generously gave to charitable causes. He was famous for paying legal expenses associated with civil rights leaders’ court cases, including Dr Martin Luther King. He frequently donated space in his facilities to civil rights activists to be used as living places and to carry out meetings. He left most of his cumulative assets to various charities after his passing.
Oprah has so many accomplishments under her belt that would be too many to count. She is an Oscar-nominated and award-winning actress, a media mogul, a philanthropist, and an important figure in the entertainment industry. As a billionaire, she is considered one of the wealthiest Black women of the 21st century. Oprah Winfrey has dedicated her life to funding educational programs and helping to raise awareness of the issues affecting women and children in the United States and worldwide.
Through her works, over 5,000 students have managed to obtain a college education. She has given millions of dollars to charitable organizations, including The Angel Network, The Oprah Winfrey Foundation, and The Oprah Winfrey Operating Foundation. What makes her one of the greatest philanthropists of the 21st century is her will that aims to donate 1 billion dollars to charity.
The Guinness Book of World Records has an entry with Michael Jackson’s name, which records him as the most charitable entertainer of his time. During his life, Jackson donated to 39 charities either through donations or by offering sponsorships. His financial contributions have enabled humanitarian assistance in impoverished regions of the world. He primarily provided clean drinking water, food, and medical supplies. Jackson dedicated a lot of money and time to A.I.D.S. relief, cancer research, and the fight against world hunger. He founded the Heal The World Foundation in 1992, which airlifted 6 tons of supplies to Sarajevo, instituted drug and alcohol abuse education, and donated millions of dollars to underprivileged children.
The Black community has been contributing to problem-solving for a long time. Our acts of charitable giving go to show just how selfless and caring we are as a community. We are a source of inspiration to many, we can all have help re-define the meaning of Black giving.