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Andrew Carnegie and Race

Born to a poor working-class couple, Andrew Carnegie rose to be one of the world’s richest men, and this book, Andrew Carnegie, tells that compelling tale, from his humble birth in a “gray stone cottage” in Dunfermline, Scotland, to his masterful development of a steel empire.

Those who would read this robust 801-page reflection will marvel at Carnegie’s will, drive, intellect, vision and ability during the embryonic capitalistic industrial age that was the turn of the 20th century. Author David Nasaw also addresses Carnegie’s ruthlessness and ignorance when it came to the thousands of poor laborers who made his wealth possible. This will forever be the paradoxical position of Andrew Carnegie: The man who was an insightful and kind philanthropist also played to win at all costs.

Carnegie openly shared his vision as to how individuals should handle the awesome burden of wealth attainment in his famous primer “Gospel of Wealth.” Nasaw conveys Carnegie’s support for the “steepest possible inheritance taxes.” Carnegie’s reasoning was clear — he believed that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” 

It was Carnegie’s desire to not focus his funds on the likes of Harvard, Yale and Columbia as he believed these universities were great centers of knowledge with vast resources stemming from robust endowments. Carnegie felt that he would have a much greater impact on small colleges’ existence with his investments/donations. Nasaw points to Mr. Carnegie’s pattern of grant funding as a prime example of the relationship he had with historically Black colleges and universities as well as numerous small majority colleges and universities across the United States.

Carnegie initially chose not to fund Atlanta and Fisk universities, claiming it was beneficial that these institutions support the newly freed slave population, however, he preferred Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee paradigm of Blacks learning technical skills for jobs available to them at the time.

Booker T. Washington contacted Carnegie in 1890 to solicit funds for Tuskegee and was awarded $20,000 for a library in 1900. Carnegie toured that library in 1906 and what he saw and experienced convinced him to further fund Tuskegee, with $620,000, and Washington’s alma mater, Hampton University, with $441,045.

Carnegie used his philanthropic funds to support his favored HBCUs, Tuskegee and Hampton universities. Carnegie went on to create the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, which covered tuition for any student in financial need.

Carnegie’s initial $10 million in 1901 to start the trust would today be $5 billion. By 1910 the Carnegie Scottish Universities Trust was covering the tuition for half of the four universities. This Carnegie investment is still applauded by many Scots who benefited from the trust.

Carnegie believed deeply in the cause of Negro education and saw slavery as blight on the country’s “Triumphant Democracy.” Further, he believed that Blacks would benefit from the support of northern White philanthropist like himself.

Nasaw justifiably points out that Carnegie fails to address or take into account the terrorist acts visited upon Blacks in the South of lynching, sharecropping which was but a new form of slavery, and Jim Crow laws and Black disenfranchisement. Carnegie’s assessment of the Black race in the United States was that they were less developed than their White counterparts. However, Nasaw also provides the complexities of Carnegie’s thinking on race and race relations in the United States. On one hand Carnegie believed that the Black race was not ready to hold the same status as White Americans. But Carnegie went on to state that Whites and Blacks may “remain separate and apart as now or may intermingle,” and that race relations “lies upon the lap of the gods.” Nasaw documents that Carnegie’s faith in Blacks’ progress caused a backlash from southern racists who, according to The New York Times, denounced the iron master as a despicable creature, an ass and a defamer of the Scotch.

In 1914, Carnegie faced a dilemma, having been requested by President Woodrow Wilson to donate funds to Berea College in Kentucky. It was not so much that he reviewed this type of request from the president himself. Nasaw goes on to reveal the dilemma Carnegie was faced with in those matters for he was often belittled for supporting Negro colleges of the day in the south. President Wilson’s argument for support of this college was an appeal for Carnegie to support southern Whites. Ultimately, Carnegie did not support the request.

Carnegie stated he would give away most of his fortune during his life time and, according to Nasaw, came extremely close. Carnegie gave away more than $350 million — which would equal billions in today’s dollars. Nasaw brings his analysis of this complex and fascinating man to a close, stating that “and with this he accomplished the final, and to his mind, most important goal he had set for himself.” Carnegie bequeathed his wife about $26 million, but left his daughter nothing, having noted on numerous occasions that he cared not to burden her with wealth.

Andrew Carnegie, one of America’s most iconic figures, used wealth to build social organizations that put forward institutional mandates with transformational empowerment of complex public issues. Carnegie’s steel empire is all but nonexistent in Pittsburgh, which was the focal point of his business. However, his philanthropic organizations that bear his name now address world peace, grants for higher education and his other pressing issues. That is truly this complex man’s legacy.

Dr. John Berry is the assistant vice president for development at South Carolina State University


Andrew Carnegie, by David Nasaw

Copyright 2007

ISBN 1-59420-104-8 (HC)

ISBN978-0-1431124400 (PBK)

Penguin Books


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