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© Black Fraternity Members. UNT Libraries Special Collections.


Black Colleges, White Philanthropists

by Melissa Wooten
May 12, 2021

This interview with Melissa Wooten, author of In the Face of Inequality, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

I currently work at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. I just moved into a staff role where I am focused on student-facing diversity programs on campus. Prior to that, I was a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. That is where I began most of my research on Black colleges and on philanthropy. I'm still researching spaces where Black students excel and also continuing to research philanthropy, with a specific focus on how it provides a window into how educational spaces for Black students were once founded and funded. 

How did you figure out philanthropy was something to look into within the context of the university structure? 

After Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act, many organizations within Black communities ceased to exist. In many ways, integration meant the demise of organizations within Black communities. For example, you didn’t necessarily have Black hotels anymore. There were a handful of Black newspapers, but not as many as there once were. However, the number of Black colleges mainly remained. My dissertation project was focused on studying that phenomenon. In the process of learning about the history of Black colleges, the role that philanthropists played became clear. 

What role do they play? 

Well, it is not so much about the amount of money they were giving. The amount of money that was coming into the colleges from Black people in Black communities far outweighed what philanthropic foundations were giving. But philanthropists wielded a large amount of power. Philanthropists demanded that Black colleges institute conservative principles and philosophies into their curriculum. 

Has your perspective on the role of philanthropy changed over the course of your research? 

It would be hard to say it has changed because I didn’t come in with a strong opinion on it, it was something I fell into. However, the more I learn about philanthropy, the more I think it is perfectly appropriate to give it the side-eye. As a society, we should fundamentally question the amount of power that philanthropists have, especially when they are engaging with communities that have been historically under-resourced.

I try to be cognizant and balance that skepticism with understanding the ways philanthropy does provide money for communities. 

It is an ever-present tension between the fact that it's unfortunate that Black colleges needed to put up with what white people with money were demanding from them, but that is the world in which they operated. 

One thing I have learned to do is marvel at the skill HBCU presidents used to navigate those waters. They created these shadow systems in these universities that produced people like Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights leaders, despite conservative philosophies the schools were being held to. Clearly, something had to be happening in those Black colleges that the philanthropists weren't aware of in order to produce this generation that pushed the country forward so much.

How do you interpret the intentions of philanthropists? 

I've oftentimes relied, especially on the work of educational historians and others who have studied the intentions of these people. One book that I reference a lot is called The White Architects of Black Education.

After reconstruction, white industrialists would get together to work on, what they called at the time, “the Negro Problem.” There was a lot of attention focused on the question of how they could use education to prop up their industrial interests because was clear that Black people wanted an education. After emancipation, schools were some first institutions that Black communities set up. So, it was clear to them that they were not going to be able to thwart their desire for education. The question then became, how can we shape education to benefit us. I think the historical record is clear that white industrialists ensured that they got involved with education to maintain a foothold. 

Are there specific people who have had the most influencing power in this space?

In my first book project, In the Face of Inequality, I focused heavily on the Rockefeller family and its foundations. But one thing that I have been looking at recently, which oftentimes gets lost in historical conversations about philanthropy, is that most philanthropies require a 50-50 split in donations. They will commit to contribute 50% of the money for a given project, but they require the other 50% to be raised from your community resources. What that meant for a Black college trying to get, for example, a studio built, was that Black communities themselves were making large sacrifices. 

That led me to look more at Julius Rosenwald. He’s known for his rural school building project that starts in the early 1900s. He would put up a certain amount of capital for these schools, but the rest has to be raised within communities. So, you have Black community members in the rural South who are being taxed by their government for schools that they are kept from attending who are now also fundraising to build rural schools. When you look through the records of Rosenwald’s contributions, you also see the match that came from Black communities. If you think about the circumstances under which Black communities were raising that money, in the true deprivation within the rural South, it is astounding.

Isn't it always the case, in terms of proportion, that those who are in desperation themselves, give much more than people who are comfortable. 


One just draws more PR. It seems to bring up the question of what you define as philanthropy — is it small community donations or is it just the mega-donors. 

Even if a 21st-century philanthropist does perhaps have a different way of thinking about the relationships between themselves and the communities that they are giving to, there's enough historical research on white philanthropists' intentions that it should give anyone pause. There is not much more we can uncover about white philanthropic intentions.  I think a better question is why can a donation from a philanthropist be key to whether a college survives or not? A better question is why can people amass wealth to the levels they have with limited taxation? Donations are nice, but we need to ask, is this really what we want? 

Yes, it's nice and generous whenever someone with money gives, but it is also representative of a fundamental problem. 

We should also think about smaller givers. We should try to figure out their motivations. We don't know near enough about them as we should. And these people are oftentimes Black and Latino and indigenous and, oftentimes, women. In many ways, it's just not a sustainable system. 

Do you see philanthropy still playing a role in having an influence over how the university operates? 

Oftentimes, when someone like Mackenzie Scott gives to Black colleges, it is as if people didn’t realize that Black colleges existed before that donation. I mean, these colleges have existed since the 1830s, but they only become a thing when somebody like Ms. Mackenzie Scott gives them money. So I do think that philanthropy is still playing a role in Black colleges, but I think, more so, Black colleges were a precursor for what ended up happening in the higher education landscape altogether. The way that historically Black colleges have had to cultivate relationships with private partners is now how public institutions have to fund themselves.

I've mostly only ever worked at publicly funded institutions, traditionally white institutions and increasingly, more and more money for these schools comes from private sources, rather than the state. We can no longer think about Black colleges as operating differently in this space. 

All of higher education is having to pull in funds from donors. 

Do you see a way out of needing philanthropy?

I do think I see a way out. Budgets. Budgets reflect priorities. Think about the recent, large bailouts: the airlines after 9/11, the financial industry after the housing market crash, and industry supported through the pandemic. Apparently, there's money somewhere. And it could be used to support higher education. Why is it not? There has been researching that has talked about how as higher education has become more diverse, state and federal government retreat from supporting it. 

How do we move outside of the austerity framework when it comes to higher education? How do we have a society that will support poor people and middle-class people with the services that they actually need — like health and education. I think that is a larger political discussion that will be led by social movements. 

I think there is also a second part to that question, which is: am I okay with the idea of philanthropy ever being a part of higher education?

I don't think I have an issue with philanthropy as a whole. I have an issue when philanthropy becomes the means by which the higher education sector within the US is surviving. 

Yeah. There are also specific, famous, predominantly white universities with enormous endowments. When does this move from being well-funded into greedy? Do you have parameters? 

I don’t have specific numbers. But what I will is that these questions should be asked more often.  There should be more spaces to ask those questions. In my book, I reflected on how there was never a moment when we re-imagined what higher education could be. People were fighting for the integration of traditionally white colleges. There was never a moment when we sat back and said, you know what, maybe we shouldn't be sending black students to the University of Alabama. They were founded on some really bad ideas. How about we sit back and reimagine what higher education could be? If we had more spaces to do that, I think we could get answers to some of these questions. 

We can all agree, that just as I need to plan for my individual future, so do colleges.  But is there a point where you have to say ask what is enough? Again, I don’t have an exact number, but, those are the sorts of conversations that I wish we had more often about education as a whole, but higher education in particular. 

And I get it. You can’t just withdraw from the endowment anytime you want. But when we enter these moments of crises, at some point we're going to have to interrogate that a little bit. We’re going to have to have some conversations around what it means to have these financial vehicles that are set up in a way that you can't draw down from endowments in an emergency. That is actually a choice that was made. At some point, you could remake the choice to account for financial exigencies. 

These things are structured. These are choices that get continually made.