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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.

1861-1865

American Civil War

1867

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.

1882

Educating the Emancipated

The John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen was established in 1882 with $1 million from its namesake founder, a New England businessman whose fortune came from cotton and wool. Whereas the Peabody Education Fund could only support existing public schools in the US South, the Slater Fund could support any educational institution. The Slater Fund focused on secondary and higher education in vocational training for Black students. Nevertheless, there were restrictions. Trustees shied away from supporting liberal education for African Americans, focusing most of their resources on education in industrial trades.B.C. Caldwell, “The Work of the Jeanes and Slater Funds,” September 1913.

1896 May 18

The Plessy v Ferguson Decision Establishes "Separate but Equal" Doctrine

1900

Madam C J Walker, Business Woman and Philanthropist

Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919), America’s first Black millionaire, was a major philanthropist in the early twentieth century. She had grown up in the Jim Crow South, an orphan, then a widow — and a former laundress. She used the fortune she amassed through building a beauty products empire to support Black education, entrepreneurship, and social services.Tyrone McKinley Freeman, Madam C. J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving. Black Women’s Philanthropy during Jim Crow. University of Illinois Press, 2020.

1901 April

The "Millionaires' Special" Tours the South

Concerned about the state of education in the US South, New York City businessman Robert Curtis Ogden organized a ten-day train tour of Black colleges for some of the wealthiest of Northerners. Ogden hoped that seeing the derelict state of southern education would spur new support from those deep pockets. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., one of the attendees, was moved by the experience. In a newspaper interview, he said, “Tuskegee was especially interesting. Mr. [Booker T.] Washington is a truly remarkable man. His school is doing a wonderful work for the race. I’m glad I made the trip.”Ron Chernow, Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Vintage, 2004, p.482.

1903 January 12

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.

1903-1980
Race & Social Justice

Black Education and Rockefeller Philanthropy from the Jim Crow South to the Civil Rights Era

Applying a vast fortune to the American race problem, but with decades of false assumptions and well-intended approaches that fell short.

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1907

Black Education in Rural Communities

With the help of Booker T. Washington, philanthropist Anna T. Jeanes established the Jeanes Foundation in 1907 with $1 million. Also known as the Negro Rural School Fund, Jeanes focused on supporting education for rural African Americans through a training network of Black teachers, often called Jeanes Supervisors. Although structured, the approach took into account local variations and gave teachers latitude in their pedagogy. The Jeanes Foundation was the only US foundation at that time to have Black board members.Linda B. Pincham, “A League of Willing Workers: The Impact of Northern Philanthropy, Virginia Estelle Randolph and the Jeanes Teachers in Early Twentieth-Century Virginia”. The Journal of Negro Education. Volume 74, Number 2, Spring 2005, pp.112–123.

1909-1914
Medicine & Public Health

Photo Essay: The Rockefeller Sanitary Commission and the South

How battling hookworm on rural farms laid the groundwork for a global public health system.

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1917

Julius Rosenwald Fund Established

Julius Rosenwald, part-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Company, created his philanthropic fund and dedicated it to the broad mission of “the well-being of mankind.” The Rosenwald Fund’s primary activity was building schools for African-American children. Before the Fund shuttered in 1948, it had funded more than five thousand schools and spent over $70 million.Mary S. Hoffschwelle, The Rosenwald Schools of the American South. University Press of Florida, 2006.

1920

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.

1926
Race & Social Justice

Who Belongs in the Boy Scouts? Philanthropy’s Support for Black Scouting

A foundation struggled to make one of America’s oldest youth organizations more racially inclusive. But it only got so far under Jim Crow.

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1944

The American Council on Race Relations Founded

As Black American soldiers returned home from World War II, many new agencies emerged to address persistent racial problems. Rosenwald Fund president Edwin Embree and department store heir Marshall Field founded the American Council on Race Relations to serve as a coordinating body for these many groups. Prominent leaders, including Ralph J. Bunche, Mary McLeod Bethune, and NAACP President Walter White, participated in the Council. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the General Education Board funded the Council until it disbanded in 1950.See American Council on Race Relations 1946-1950, Rockefeller Brothers Fund records; and American Council on Race Relations 1944-1949, General Education Board records, Rockefeller Archive Center.

1944

An American Dilemma Published

Funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, Gunnar Myrdal’s seminal study of American race relations became an influential postwar framework for understanding the race problem. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy argued that racial segregation and the democratic ideal could not coexist. Ralph Bunche, who made major contributions to the research project, would become the first Black trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation.Maribel Morey, “The Making of an American Dilemma: The Philanthropists and Social Scientists of the Civil Rights Movement.” Rockefeller Archive Center Research Reports, 2010; Maribel Morey, White Philanthropy: Carnegie Corporation’s An American Dilemma and the Making of a White World Order (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

1944

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.

1948

National Medical Fellowships for Minority Students

The Commonwealth Fund began a decades-long program dedicated to supporting minority students pursuing medical education.First grant: “National Medical Fellowships, Inc. 1948-1953,” Commonwealth Fund records, Rockefeller Archive Center.

1953
elementaChildren of diverse ethnic backgrounds get ready to go inside their school, two hold hands
Race & Social Justice

Can Data Drive Social Change? Tackling School Segregation with Numbers

In the years before Brown v. Board, a philanthropic fund hoped research and data would turn the tide on attitudes toward segregation.

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1954 May 17

Brown v Board Supreme Court Decision

In May 1954, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) lawyer Thurgood Marshall brought before the Supreme Court five cases with African American plaintiffs who claimed they had been deprived of the equal protection of law by a segregated school system. Together, these cases came to be known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. On May 17, 1954, the Court ruled unanimously that any school system segregated by race was “inherently unequal,” and ordered states to desegregate their schools “with all deliberate speed.” The Ashmore Project, detailed in the story above, was mounted in anticipation of the Brown decision by the Fund for the Advancement of Education, a Ford Foundation-founded entity, to make a persuasive data-driven case for school integration.

1955 May 31

Brown II

While the 1954 Brown v Board decision outlawed school segregation, it left implementation unresolved. The following year, in May 1955, the Supreme Court issued a new ruling that dialed down the urgency of its previous directive. In what became known as Brown II, it now required only that schools “make a prompt and reasonable start toward full compliance with the ruling of this Court.”

1955-1956

Montgomery Bus Boycott

1958

Taconic Foundation Created

Stephen and Audrey Currier founded the Taconic Foundation to engage in American civil rights work. Early support included grants to the Civil Rights Leadership Conference Fund, the Committee of Southern Churchmen, the Congress of Racial Equality, the NAACP, the Southern Regional Council, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to name only a few. While the Taconic Foundation is relatively unknown compared to other foundations (and the guiding role of the Curriers was intentionally downplayed through not naming their foundation for themselves), it would be difficult to overstate the crucial role this foundation played in moving the civil rights cause forward and supporting Black leadership. Taconic was especially instrumental in underwriting the Voter Education Project, a major undertaking across the US South in the early 1960s.Evan Faulkenbury, Poll Power: The Voter Education Project and the Movement for the Ballot in the American South. University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

1959
Race & Social Justice

In Brief: James Baldwin’s Creative Writer’s Fellowship

How a foundation provided the final ingredient to an era-defining novel.

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1960 February 1

Greensboro Sit-Ins Begin

1963
Race & Social Justice

The Origins of the Rockefeller Foundation Equal Opportunity Program

How a simple grant request seeded the launch of a full program addressing inequality.

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1963 August 28

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

1964 June – August

Freedom Summer

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) carried out the Freedom Summer project to draw national attention to the violent repression of Black voting rights.

1964 July 2

Civil Rights Act Passed

1964
Race & Social Justice

The Rockefeller Foundation Confronts School Inequality

A college prep program increased admissions rates for at-risk students, but it also raised larger questions about systemic inequality.

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1964-1969
Race & Social Justice

“Highest Standards”: Elite Philanthropy and Literary Black Voices during the Civil Rights Era

Against a backdrop of white, establishment concepts of literary excellence, one foundation struggled to appreciate Black voices.

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1965 August 6

Voting Rights Act Passed

1965-1970
Issues in Philanthropy

Funding a Social Movement: The Ford Foundation and Civil Rights, 1965-1970

A story recounting many accusations, from rigged elections to the meddling of big private money in grassroots organizing.

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1967

New Life for Meharry Medical College

Founded in 1876 in Nashville, Meharry Medical College was the first medical school for Black Americans in the South. The General Education Board had supported Meharry since 1916, eventually giving it more than $8 million — about half going to land, buildings and equipment, and the other half to an endowment. Like many other schools serving Black students, Meharry struggled to achieve an endowment sizable enough to ensure the security of its operations. In 1947, the Rockefeller Foundation attempted to help bridge the gap with a $100k grant. By the 1960s, Meharry was educating more than half of all Black physicians in the US, but still struggled, and its sources of funding dwindled. In 1967, the Commonwealth Fund provided the College with a five-year grant to enhance its science curriculum.

1968 April 4

Martin Luther King, Jr., Assassinated

1968 April 11

Fair Housing Act Passed

1968 May 12

Poor People's Campaign Begins

1968
Issues in Philanthropy

Supporting Economic Justice? Ford’s 1968 PRI Experiment

How the largest US foundation began supporting market-based projects in the late 1960s.

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1968

Addressing Race and Urban Issues

In 1968, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund developed an umbrella organizing mechanism for addressing the complex problems of race in the inner city. Focusing on New York City, the Special Program in Race & Urban Problems foreshadowed the Fund’s later Equal Rights and Opportunities Program. Coordinated by Fund staff, it made modest grants to a range of organizations, each of which worked on a facet of the broader issue. Programs included the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem, which encouraged young people to pursue careers in architecture and planning; ASPIRA’s summer education and cultural enrichment for Puerto Rican youth; the Cultural Council Foundation’s workshops offered through New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs; Judson Memorial Church’s summer programs for underserved youth in lower Manhattan; and the New York Housing Authority’s free outdoor performances and arts activities on the Lower East Side.

1969
Race & Social Justice

Ted Watkins and the Rockefeller Foundation: An Unlikely Partnership

How a charismatic community activist from Watts challenged a foundation’s civil rights strategy through a jobs training program.

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1969
Race & Social Justice

Photo Essay: Supporting Minority Enterprise in the late 1960s

In 1968, the Ford Foundation began to make social investments using a new tool borrowed from the for-profit world, the Program-Related Investment.

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1970
Arts & Culture

Programming for the People: Diversity in Early Public Television

How philanthropy helped carve out a public space for the expression of race, culture, and critical perspectives.

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Assistant Director of Research and Education, Rockefeller Archive Center