Reviewing the History of Philanthropy in Black Education
Amid the burgeoning literature about modern philanthropy, Eric Anderson and Alfred A. Moss Jr. make a significant contribution to our understanding of philanthropy as an agent of social change. In Dangerous Donations: Northern Philanthropy and Southern Black Education, 1902-1930, not only do the authors critique the potential and limitations of philanthropy, but they provide significant insights into an important era in Black history and American education.
Anderson and Moss recount the complex story of one of the earliest attempts by northern philanthropists to bring about major social change in the U.S. — by increasing educational opportunities for African Americans in the South within a few decades of the close of the Civil War. Until the latter part of the 19th century, the education of Blacks was largely the domain of missionary societies, notably those of the Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist Churches. The work of these societies was “first supplemented and then overshadowed” by secular foundations — for example, the Slater Fund and The Peabody Fund, established in 1881 and 1887, respectively.
The most significant foundations, however, both in terms of their extensive resources and their ultimate influence, were the General Education Board established in 1902 with $33 million in gifts from the Rockefellers and the Southern Education Board established in 1901. Although other foundations would have a significant impact on the education of Blacks and Whites, none had more influence than these two — especially the Rockefeller-funded General Education Board. These were the two foundations after which the others modeled themselves.
Anderson and Moss carefully trace the evolution of Black education in the South. There were the early missionary societies that believed it was a religious obligation to “elevate the freedmen.” Then there were the early philanthropists, such as millionaire merchant John F. Slater, who viewed southern education as a “patriotic duty that could not well be shirked without disaster.” And there was the General Education board’s “Scientific and efficiently organized philanthropy.”
The authors also explore the various conflicting forces that constricted the work of the northern philanthropists. These included the demands of African Americans not only for increased educational opportunities, demanding something on par with that available to Whites, but also for control of these same institutions. Such demands helped fuel opposition and recalcitrance of southern Whites who viewed the philanthropists’ work as attempts by “Yankees” to undermine their way of life.
To their credit, Anderson and Moss acknowledge in the first chapter the legitimate aspirations of African Americans for educational opportunity as well as their active support of Black schools and teachers. They conclude: “It is inaccurate to think of Blacks as mere receivers of charity. … Black communities were also donors, contributing millions of dollars in educational self-help.”
Indeed, African Americans have a long history of involvement in American philanthropy and Anderson and Moss provide convincing evidence of this.
Contemporary scholars are divided in their opinions of what motivated the White philanthropists to focus on Black education. Was it “the richness and vitality of American life” or “generosity designed to prevent real reform?” Did the philanthropists support Black schools to “promote larger [social] goals” or were they just creating a large class of cheap labor? These are among the many questions explored in the book.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of the book is that there are important lessons to be learned from studying the motivations, accomplishments and shortcomings of these turn-of-the-century philanthropists.
Just as the Industrial Revolution created immense wealth for 19th century men like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, technology is creating enormous wealth for people like Bill Gates and others today.
To their credit, many of these nouveau-wealthy, are establishing private foundations to channel their philanthropy in many directions. These 21st century benefactors would do well to be guided by Anderson’s and Moss’ conclusions: “… each of us would prefer a form of philanthropy more respectful of local and private institutions, less certain of the future, and more skeptical of the conventional wisdom of the early 20th century.”
Dangerous Donations makes a contribution to several disciplines — including philanthropy, the history of education, and the history of race relations. It also provides important documentation to the philanthropy of African Americans under enormous adversity.
— Rodney Jackson is the president of The National Center for Black Philanthropy.
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