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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 access to higher education.
A place in history
Smith earned his wealth through technology and finance, and has his own foundation. He has signed the Giving Pledge, through which dozens of the world’s richest people have promised to donate most of their wealth to causes they believe in. But in my view, it would be a mistake to look to the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett, the billionaires who created the Giving Pledge in 2010, to understand Robert F. Smith’s philanthropy.
That’s because of the challenges Smith made to the Morehouse graduates benefiting from his gift and his peers as well.
“The liberation of communities we come from depends upon the grit and the determination and the greatness inside of you, using your skills and your knowledge and your instincts to serve to change the world in only the way that you can,” Smith said.
This idea of a responsibility to liberate one’s community links Smith and today’s black donors with those of the past.
Forten and LaFon
One of the black philanthropists in colonial times was James Forten, who was born in 1766 into a free black family in Philadelphia. Introduced to sail-making by his father, Forten apprenticed in the trade after serving on a ship near the end of the Revolutionary War. He became wealthy and a leader in the movement to end slavery.
Thomy LaFon, another early black giver, was born into a free family in 1810 in New Orleans. He grew up in poverty but was a natural entrepreneur who sold food, ran a store, brokered loans and eventually invested in real estate.
Colonel John McKee was born into freedom in Alexandria, Virginia, around 1819 but became indentured at a young age.
McKee ran a Philadelphia restaurant in his twenties. Over time, he acquired a significant amount of property. He provided housing for the black migrants who traveled north to Philadelphia after emancipation.
When he died in 1902, McKee left most of his reported $2 million fortune to the Catholic Church and a school to educate black and white orphaned boys. After decades of disputes, the McKee Scholarship emerged in the 1950s. It continues to help cover higher education costs for many young fatherless men in the Philadelphia region today.
A.G. Gaston was born in 1892 in Demopolis, Alabama, to parents who had been enslaved. He began building businesses in Birmingham in the 1920s. He ultimately owned an insurance company, a funeral home and cemetery, a business college, motel, bank, radio stations and a construction company.
Gaston worked behind the scenes of the civil rights movement to maintain relations with whites while maintaining a reputation as having a non-confrontational approach to ending segregation. In the 1950s, the entrepreneur helped pay the legal bills tied to a court case seeking the admission of African Americans to the all-white University of Alabama.
He regularly donated or discounted the use of his facilities to house civil rights activists and host meetings. When the police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, jailed Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy for protesting in Birmingham in 1963, Gaston bailed them out, along with hundreds more protesters.
When the Alabaman, who was reportedly worth $130 million, died in 1996 he left several provisions in his estate for charity. Birmingham’s A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club is still operating.
With this gift and the rest of his big donations, Robert F. Smith has assumed his place in this philanthropic history, and encouraged other African Americans to do the same.
LOSING MOMENTUM: Can GOP Congresswoman Michele Bachmann continue to win over doubters with her ambitious presidential bid?
The rise of Republican congresswoman and Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann as a serious presidential candidate has provided one of the more curious storylines for political observers this summer. As a female political scientist intrigued by Bachmann’s ascent, I initially wondered if she might best Mitt Romney in the primaries — a feat that Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to accomplish on the Democratic side in her bid against the eventual presidential victor, Barack Obama.
Now I’m wondering if my curiosity was misplaced. You see, a few weeks back Bachmann’s momentum seemed inevitable. Polls showed her hanging neck-in-neck with Mitt Romney.
Lately, however, she’s been singing the blahs.
Not the blues, the blahs. The same old blah, blah, blah songs that failed to inspire Independents and youth voters to vote for Republicans in the last election. Bachmann is singing from the same hymnbook that the Christian Right has been floating around since the 1980s—the same old song that lost Republicans the 2008 election. So what is the evangelical contender getting the most pre-primary buzz — Michele Bachmann — to do?
To be successful in the 2012 race, Bachmann must drop the national anthem of evangelical politics — God, guns, and gays. This song of “the 3 G’s” has played itself out. That Michele Bachmann supports the 3 G’s is intuitively obvious. So why keep singing the same tired tune?
We know from Bachmann’s biography that Jesus is her homeboy. We know based on her ‘A’ rating from the National Rifle Association that even if she’s not personally packing an Uzi, she supports your right to do so. We know from the horse’s mouth that she signed a controversial pledge supporting a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman — a controversial pledge because it also stated that African American children were better off during slavery than they are in 2011 under the administration of a black President.
Sounds like the same old refrain that lost the GOP the election in 2008. Is there anything new in the 2012 Republican knapsack or is Bachmann simply the same old Sarah Palin wine in new wineskins? To be a serious contender, Bachmann must refashion her image, bucking the widely held assumption that she is Palin’s Midwestern clone — even if secretly, she is. But how?
Time for a new tune on the evangelical political iPod. Push the evangelical envelope by singing the 3 P’s — pluralism, peace, and Priuses. This new hymn is in the style and key of a core constituency — youth voters. Tout religious pluralism in the campaign, including interfaith efforts to combat issues like sex trafficking. Embrace the increasing numbers of young Christian pacifists who oppose the current wars and the notion that any war can be classified as a just one. Emphasize environmental concerns in a convincing manner given that global warming is an undisputed fact according to a majority of young evangelicals, many of whom probably think Jesus would probably drive a Prius.
Youth voters, including young evangelicals, were crucial to Obama’s victory in 2008. Obama understood that young voters are devoted to the 3 P’s, but not so much the 3 G’s. Yes, evangelical youth are more pro-life than their parents, but they are more likely to believe that Jesus was a social justice revolutionary in the manner of Shane Claiborne than the harbinger of a holy war against public schools.
Less talk about gay marriage and more talk about greening the ghetto would take the evangelical agenda, and Bachmann’s campaign, to new heights. It’s time for a new song in an increasingly outmoded evangelical hymnbook.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of UrbanFaith.com or Urban Ministries Inc.
As unemployment grows, partisanship deepens, and war lingers on, things certainly don’t look as hopeful as they did 20 months ago when Barack Obama took office. But there’s still hope. We just need to remember where to look for it.
Remember January 2009? That month, the country witnessed the historic inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America. “The skinny kid with a funny name” upended the political establishment, running on a campaign of hope and change. So many of us expected that his administration would usher in a new, golden era of progressive policy and thought in Washington. No more politics as usual, we all agreed. Some heralded the start of a new, “post-racial” era in American life. It was hard for even the most jaded pessimist not to get suckered in.
Fast-forward to the present: summer 2010. While there have been some landmark victories and accomplishments, they have been overshadowed by the plethora of watered-down compromises and outright defeats. Politics has indeed departed from its usual course, but only in that the level of partisan bickering seems to have reached an all-time high. Plus there’s rampant unemployment; the massive national deficit and the accompanying looming specter of what that means for our future; and a war effort that is only getting worse with no easy exit strategy. On top of that all, along came the Shirley Sherrod incident, eradicating any holdouts still desperately grasping onto the myth of a “post-racial” America. Now the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy threatens to pull us further apart as a nation.
And it appears despair is contagious, because progressives aren’t the only ones suffering the doldrums. Americans of all ideological backgrounds and partisan bents seem to be in dour moods. A majority of people believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Politicians from both sides of the aisle (and even those in the middle), are quaking in their boots as the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment has swept the nation. It’s simply a hard time to be an optimist.
For the average citizen, it is tempting for us to bury our heads in the sand. To lament the sad state of affairs that has developed and to promise that we have learned our lesson. We won’t get involved, we say. After all, what’s the point? Nothing will change; nothing ever changes. Besides, aren’t our own lives — the stresses and pressures of day-to-day living — complicated enough?
It is in times like these that we should remember Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians. He encourages them to be persistent in their efforts and endeavors, writing: “Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9).
Just as Paul urged them to persevere in their efforts despite the negativity around them, so too must we not take our hands from the plow despite what we see or what the pundits say. There is simply too much important work to be done. Immigration reform. Revamping our nation’s outdated and damaging environmental policies. Reforming our schools. Restoring the livelihoods and habitats destroyed by the black, oily trail along the Gulf Coast. Our country can’t afford for people of good conscience to abandon their advocacy on these issues.
While we have been suffering through a summer (and perhaps a spring and winter) of depressing news and bleak outlooks, we must remember that a new season is just around the corner. And, lest we forget, autumn is harvest time.