This post was written by Stacey Walker on behalf of the Case Foundation. 

As February comes to a close, the staff at the Case Foundation has enjoyed spending the month reflecting on the great achievements and contributions of fearless African Americans that have transformed our communities and the world. These contributions span the fields of medicine, civil rights, arts and culture, and science and technology. And in looking back, we’ve found that the story of African Americans in philanthropy is equally impressive and groundbreaking.

The philanthropic community has been greatly influenced by the work of household names like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and Magic Johnson. These individuals have brought about meaningful change on an incredible scale, and in doing so have impacted millions. In addition to the great works of these celebrated individuals, it’s also important to recognize the efforts of countless other African Americans working tirelessly to affect change through philanthropy.

Oseola McCarty washed and ironed clothes for a living, and one or two dollars at a time, she was able to save $150,000 in her lifetime. She gave it all away before she died to endow a scholarship that would give young men and women in her hometown the opportunity to go to college. Will Allen has championed the issue of food security and sustainability through his urban farming companies. Geoffrey Canada has empowered thousands of young men and women in Harlem through innovative education techniques. And the paragon of hope and generosity within the African American community – the black church – has long been a mainstay of charitable activities, serving as one of the very first grantmaking institutions to black Americans seeking to build schools and providing college scholarships to deserving individuals. Philanthropy throughout the African American community is pervasive, but the truly extraordinary thing that several surveys confirm is that African Americans don’t even view their gifts of time and money as charitable activities, but rather as their collective responsibility to others.

The Case Foundation strives to lift up people and ideas with the potential to change the world, and this groundswell of African American changemakers in philanthropy is encouraging. Giving back and helping others is the fundamental premise of philanthropy and this premise has been a central tenet of African American culture. The distinguished researcher Mary Winters notes in her study on Endowment Building in the African American Community that perhaps out of survival, “Black Americans have been compelled to share and give back from the moment they arrived on the shores of this country. When they have money to give, they give; when there was no money to give, a generous heart, a strong back or a keen mind. As a value, “giving back” is firmly rooted in black history.” Research by the Kellogg Foundation supports this belief. The report, “Cultures of Giving: Energizing and Expanding Philanthropy by and for Communities of Color,” shows that African Americans give away 25 percent more of their income per year than white Americans. These findings go to show just how deep the spirit of giving runs within the black community.

The story of African Americans has been one of continual progress. It began with slaves coming together and sharing secret messages through song to plan their escape to freedom. It was aided by the fearless Harriet Tubman who along with others helped to create a sophisticated network of passageways and hideouts for runaway slaves. The struggle continued onto the fields of battle, where a divided nation confronted the slavery question with arms. After Reconstruction came an even longer battle for equality complete with the protests of millions of people, inspired by the dreams of a young southern Baptist preacher from Georgia. And out of these movements came some of the first institutional giving platforms dedicated to the Black American cause. Dr. Emmett Carson, President and CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, maintains that the era immediately following the Civil Rights Movement gave rise to the professionalization of black charitable giving. This was represented by the National Black United Fund, which was founded in 1972 “to provide a viable, systematic, and cost efficient mechanism for black Americans to make charitable contributions to black American organizations engaged in social change, development, and human services.”

For the first time, people were systematically donating money to causes and institutions that were not necessarily known to them personally, but that they believed would benefit the African American community as a whole. Today, armed with growing capacity, the descendants of slaves now generate philanthropy that benefits many families who continue to struggle both here in the United States and communities in need around the world, just as their forefathers and mothers before them (Winters, 109). A lot these folks may never make the Forbes List of wealthiest people, but their value-add to society is immeasurable. It is an honor and a privilege to salute these individuals during this Black History Month.

Know any outstanding African American professionals in the philanthropic sector? Show your appreciation for them by sharing their name in our ongoing conversation via Twitter. Be sure to use the hashtag #blackhistorymonth when you do. Our staff will be chiming in with their picks as well. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!

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