The birth of large-scale, organized philanthropy, on the heels of the American Civil War, was infused from the beginning with an awareness of racial inequality. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wealthy individuals such as mill owner John F. Slater, philanthropist Anna T. Jeanes, department store mogul Julius Rosenwald, beauty product entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker, and oil baron John D. Rockefeller concerned themselves with Black education and economic opportunity.
The philanthropic foundations these individuals established would continue to grapple with the same issues over the following decades of the mid-twentieth century. New strategies developed to target what professional foundation staff came to identify as the root cause of inequality: access. Foundations began to work in policy research and litigation, and to tackle access on a variety of levels: access to the systems and protections of the law; to education through school improvement programs and scholarships; to cultural and artistic validation through fellowships; to economic equality through investments in minority enterprise.
Organized philanthropy’s approach to race and race relations was not, however, without its problems. Philanthropic programs undertaken within the constraints of segregation also worked to sustain the existing system. And programs aimed at reducing inequality often betrayed biases and prejudices held by foundation staff themselves, not to mention reinforcing top-down structures of power. But organized philanthropy’s attention to race and inequality from the start evidences, at the very least, its acknowledgment of systemic racism as perhaps the nation’s most persistent and deeply embedded problem.
This timeline features selected episodes in a century of philanthropic engagement with race and racism, from the Reconstruction period to the Civil Rights era.
Peabody Education Fund Established
Just after the Civil War, banker and philanthropist George Peabody (1795-1869) set up what many consider to be the first modern American philanthropic foundation. The Peabody Education Fund was set up “to promote and encourage the intellectual, moral, industrial education of the destitute children of the Southern states.” Because the Fund only supported existing schools, Black children were excluded from its purview in the initial years. As schools were built and other funders came onto the scene, the Fund would eventually contribute to the development of Black education until it closed its doors in 1914.Franklin Parker, “George Peabody, 1795-1869: His Influence on Educational Philanthropy.” Peabody Journal of Education, Volume 78, Number 2, 2003, pp.111-118.
General Education Board Created
The General Education Board (GEB) was inspired by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s southern journey on the “Millionaires’ Special.” It was incorporated by an Act of Congress on January 12, 1903 to foster “the promotion of education within the United States of America, without distinction of race, sex, or creed.” John D. Rockefeller, Sr. made an initial commitment of $1 million to the organization, and his contributions quickly grew to $43 million by 1907. (He would eventually give it $180 million.) These donations marked, at the time, the largest philanthropic gift to any organization in the history of the United States. The GEB built and improved schools for both white and Black students (although it did adhere to Jim Crow segregation), paid teacher salaries, and promoted Black high schools in a region where there existed virtually none. It also gave significant funding to Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), endowing faculty lines and making capital grants for new buildings, among other support.
National Urban League Founded
The National Urban League was formed in 1920 from older organizations that had helped Southern Black migrants adjust to urban life in the North. It soon expanded its mission to securing educational and employment opportunities for African Americans generally. Major philanthropic organizations documented in the Rockefeller Archive Center’s collections supported the Urban League for decades, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Henry Luce, Russell Sage, Rockefeller, Ford, and Taconic foundations, the General Education Board, and the Population Council. Winthrop Rockefeller served on the League’s board.See, among others, “National Urban League, Inc. 1941-1943,” Rockefeller Brothers Fund Records; “National Urban League 1984-1989,” Henry Luce Foundation records; “National Urban League – Leadership Development 1964-1969,” Rockefeller Foundation records; “National Urban League 1947,” Russell Sage Foundation records; “National Urban League, Inc. (06500136),” Ford Foundation records; “National Urban League: General 1958-2010,” Taconic Foundation records; “National Urban League – Race Relations 1944-1951,” General Education Board records; “National Urban League 1965-1966,” Population Council records, Rockefeller Archive Center. Only the first grants are listed.
United Negro College Fund Established
The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) began as an interracial organization for the joint benefit of twenty-seven private, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). These included Atlanta, Dillard, Fisk, Howard, and Lincoln universities, Spelman, Morehouse, and Bethune-Cookamn colleges, and Hampton and Tuskegee institutes. Numerous funders represented in Rockefeller Archive Center holdings supported the UNCF, including the Ford, Henry Luce, Rockefeller, Taconic, and William T. Grant foundations, the Commonwealth and Rockefeller Brothers funds, the General Education Board, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his descendants.See, among others “United Negro College Fund, Inc. (05300067)“, Ford Foundation records; “United Negro College Fund 1977-1981,” Henry Luce Foundation records; “United Negro College Fund, Inc. 1962-1966, 1972,” Rockefeller Foundation records; “United Negro College Fund 1969-1978,” Taconic Foundation records; “United Negro College Fund – Vernon Jordan,” William T. Grant Foundation records; “United Negro College Fund, Inc. July 31, 1968-June 18, 1975,” Commonwealth Fund records; “United Negro College Fund, Inc. 1944-1946,” Rockefeller Brothers Fund records; “United Negro College Fund 1943-1952,” General Education Board records, Rockefeller Archive Center. Only the first grants are listed.