A Brief History. From Africa to the Americas.
It is easy to imagine the earliest forms of giving within Black communities. Between two families, after a harvest perhaps, one family gave some of their surplus and seed to a less fortunate relative who in turn grew their own the next season. With the accumulation of goods and wealth, these offerings of support extended to distant relatives tied by clan or tribe or affinity. As communities grew and expanded, transportation routes allowed this generosity to follow migration routes across territories and for technology to make connections possible across continental borders. With just a click of a button, generosity can now be activated around the world.
A closer look at Black history reminds us of just how deep-seated giving is in our communities. Before millions of Africans were forcibly displaced, families formed savings clubs, called “sou-sous” in some regions, to rotate the distribution of monies collected. Even in the Americas, "while being systematically denied wealth accumulation, and victimized by wholesale wealth extraction," the newly created Black Diaspora persisted and drew from those indigenous practices to support themselves and each other. These practices would take new and different forms as Black people integrated and adapted in new contexts.
Giving At Scale
To do something “at scale” is to do something at the required size to solve the problem. It is primarily through religious, collegiate, and civil society associations that Black people have scaled their giving to address pressing social and economic issues within their communities. The establishment of organizations like The Links, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) have proven to be powerful instruments of Black philanthropy in their communities.
Even though few Blacks self-identify as philanthropists, their collective financial support for churches, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the Underground Railroad, Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement, and the Civil Rights Movement is evidence that philanthropy is embedded in the community. According to Dr. Emmett Carson, former chief executive of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the nation's largest community foundation, Black giving, for three centuries (1600-1970s), had the following characteristics:
The promotion of common interests rather than individual interests;
The pulling together of modest amounts by many individuals rather than relying on a few large donors; and
A transformative focus directed at improving the socioeconomic status of African Americans through self-help and social protest.
One of the most notable philanthropists who embodied these characteristics was the first recorded female self-made millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker. Digital archives of her records, awash with examples of Walker’s endless generosity, highlight the significance of giving throughout her life, even before she amassed her fortune. She is credited for contributing to a number of causes and multifaceted initiatives that supported the educational, professional, and social development of Black people.
Her first documented gift in 1911 was a $1,000 donation to the Black YMCA in Indianapolis. This philanthropic gift is equivalent to about $30,000 today. She supported pioneering civil organizations like the National Association for Colored Women that played a pivotal role in Black communities; and contributed monies towards the preservation of beloved abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ Washington, DC home, Cedar Hill. Nearly 100 years after Walker’s death, the impact of her contributions are still felt in institutions that exist today like Flanner House in St. Louis, Tuskegee University, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 2018 Richleiu Dennis, owner of Essence Magazine and family-owned skincare brand, Sundial Brands, formally announced that his family purchased Walker’s 28,000 square-foot estate in New York with the vision to transform the mansion into a “learning institute, or think tank, to foster entrepreneurship for present and future generations.” For Walker’s estate to serve today’s female entrepreneurs in this way feels like her vision has come full circle.
Giving As A Form of Resistance
The massacre of Tulsa's "Black Wall Street" by Vox
Black giving was and continues to be a form of resistance. One of the most successful examples is in the establishment of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, also known as Black Wall Street. Its subsequent destruction by white mobs illustrates the significant obstacles Black people face in their attempts to pool resources and uplift their communities.
Ottowa Gurley, a wealthy Black businessman, is credited as the visionary of the Greenwood District. In 1906, Gurley purchased and reserved 40 acres of land to sell exclusively to Black families escaping from the dire straits of racial inequality in the US. Greenwood would be called a “Mecca” where Black children received the very highest levels of education, Black businesses thrived, and six Black families were said to have owned their own private planes in a town with just two airports. The vision of a single man lifted thousands of Black families out of poverty by addressing their social and economic needs, drastically shifting the course of their lives and, potentially, generations to come.
Sadly, much of this wealth was burned away in a racially motivated, two-day riot which left upwards of nine-thousand Black people homeless and generations of wealth undone. This overt antipathy for Black self-organizing and their ongoing exclusion from mainstream philanthropy are two reasons so called “dual-purpose” giving continues to this day. Even some of the most generous Blacks “hide” their giving behind other more benign causes or choose to remain anonymous.
While Gurley’s establishment of the Greenwood District may not be strictly defined as philanthropic giving, it points to the resilience and persistence of the Black community to do whatever it takes to make socioeconomic progress. It is giving at the scale required to make a difference. Our research and essays will focus on similar examples of socially transformative investments. We are exploring collective giving that is disruptive, focused, and capable of moving the needle on critical issues for global Black Diaspora communities.
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