Philanthropy and Historical Research / Philanthropy and Inequality

7 Ways to Read around the History of Philanthropy’s Diversity Problem this Black History Month

Editors’ Note: Against the backdrop of Black History Month, Tyrone McKinley Freeman asks fellow historians of philanthropy to acknowledge black Americans’ history as philanthropists, reminding us that the current literature on the history of US philanthropy “does not fully capture the richness of African Americans’ giving, volunteering, associating, and advocating systems, models, behaviors and ways of being.” Addressing this diversity problem in scholarly (and by extension, the public’s) understandings of past and present philanthropists in the US, Freeman offers seven works that have helped him overcome the “disconnect in philanthropy historiography regarding communities of color.”

During this Black History Month, if you are looking to read up on black philanthropy or black philanthropists, the existing historiography on philanthropy has little to offer you. The major scholarly works in this developing field center the white experience. Whether presenting syntheses, episodic cross sections of American philanthropy or biographies of particular donors, they have largely left the generosity of African Americans untouched.

The field’s focus on the elite philanthropic foundations of the twentieth century and the elite white male (and sometimes female) philanthropists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has contributed to our understanding of how the wealthy used their power and influence towards a variety of ends. In the process, it has informed our perspective on today’s wealthy elite, many of whom aspire to emulate these philanthropists and foundations of yore.

That said, this history of the “one percent” leaves little room for the average white American to understand their own philanthropic traditions, let alone those of people of color. This literature tends to present African Americans mostly as recipients of white generosity and rarely presents them as central agents with their own philanthropic values, agendas, traditions, and practices.

But there is not a single era in U.S. history in which African Americans were not engaged in their own philanthropic actions as a matter of daily survival, religious and cultural practice, or social change at scale. While there have been efforts to be inclusive and some important works on African American civil society have been produced, we have still managed to create a history of American philanthropy that does not fully capture the richness of African Americans’ giving, volunteering, associating, and advocating systems, models, behaviors and ways of being.

I encountered this problem while conducting research for my philanthropic biography of Madam C.J. Walker, the early twentieth-century entrepreneur who became widely known as the “first self-made female millionaire” (manuscript under contract with the University of Illinois Press). Extant philanthropic historiography was not helpful to my endeavor. In it, I found no frameworks or models that explained Walker as a philanthropist. The story of change and development over time or cause and effect being told in this historiography left no room for Walker, the traditions out of which she came, the many peers of her day, or the subsequent generations influenced by her. That the term “philanthropy” has not historically resonated in black communities may be one of many reasons for this disconnect, an issue my book will explore.

That said, I could not wait for this disconnect to be bridged and for such historiography to evolve to better account for the philanthropic agency and voluntary actions of African Americans like Walker. I had to cull and create the historical frameworks and models myself, which meant looking elsewhere—beyond the typical sources on which most scholarship on the history of philanthropy depends.

While the historiography produced by scholars who intentionally set out to write about philanthropy did not offer the kinds of meaningful engagement with African Americans as philanthropists that I needed, luckily, there are other historiographies that have and continue to do so. The fields of Africana Studies and black women’s history, for instance, have strong foundational threads that can provide entry into understanding African American philanthropic practices. Scholars in these fields tend to have no disciplinary interest in or commitment to the study of philanthropy for its own sake. Yet they have developed critical frames for assessing and historicizing philanthropic practices in communities of color.

Such scholars have had to engage philanthropy because enslavement and legally-sanctioned discrimination created the kinds of government and market failures that necessitated voluntary action. African American history, with all of its complexity, is steeped in voluntary philanthropic processes and practices that scholars had to grapple with in order to pursue the actual disciplinary questions they set out to explore. Simply put, it is not possible to understand black people without engaging them as givers. So while such scholars would not necessarily think of themselves as studying philanthropy, or committed to the study of philanthropy itself—I know because I have actually asked some of them—they are scholars of philanthropy nonetheless.

It behooves those of us who do the interdisciplinary work of studying philanthropy more broadly to engage with these scholars and their works and invite them into the fold. While we have long grasped onto—indeed built our field’s foundations upon—the disciplines that were out in front in their analyses of the nonprofit sector and voluntary action, such as economics, political science, sociology, law, etc., it is time we equally connect with and expand our reach further to other fields, especially historical subfields, doing similar work.

Right now, if you want meaningful and in-depth historical work on African Americans as philanthropists, broadly defined, you must read Africana Studies and black women’s history. We should work to engage with scholars from these fields because they have much to teach us about the subject we hold dear and by which we define ourselves. And perhaps in the process, we can teach them that their de facto intellectual commitments to philanthropy can become part of the way they define themselves, too.

To this end, and in honor of the occasion presented by Black History Month, I offer seven works that have helped me overcome this disconnect in philanthropy historiography regarding communities of color. The texts on this short and non-exhaustive list are from other fields beyond the “history of philanthropy,” and, in my view, center the philanthropic agency of African Americans in historical context. In them, black people are presented not as a contrast to what white philanthropists were or were not doing at any given time, but are understood in their own right as people navigating the inequities and absurdities of their American experience. This list grew out of my work on Madam C.J. Walker and is now part of my new project of curating a historical volume of texts outside philanthropic studies that address people of color as givers, which aspires to be more reflective of the deep character and versatile nature of black philanthropy.

This short list pushes the boundaries on the scope of philanthropy and its definitions. Indeed, most of these texts do not use the term philanthropy at all. Further, my annotations in no way do justice to the fullness of these works and their larger scholarly contributions. They hint at the texts’ potential for expanding our understanding of what philanthropy is and who counts as philanthropists. In these texts can be found examples of the diverse means and methods black people have deployed to express their humanity through giving, to navigate the horrors of their experience, and, in the process, to change America.

One cannot study the history of African Americans without encountering their philanthropy; it is unfortunate that one can study the history of philanthropy without meaningfully encountering African Americans. We can change that. For now, happy reading for the remainder of Black History Month—and any month thereafter.

  1. Collier-Thomas, Bettye. Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2010.

Collier-Thomas investigates the role of black churchwomen in creating numerous organizational structures both inside and outside of the Black Church—including in conventions and within the temperance, suffrage, and missionary movements—to pursue the political and social goals of racial uplift. She lays out the complex organizational lives and networks of black churchwomen as they navigated denominational sexism and societal racism and sexism. In the process, she highlights the central influence of religion on black women’s intersectional identities and engagement in community work.

  1. Davis, King E. Fund Raising in the Black Community: History, Feasibility, and Conflict. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1975.

Through this published dissertation of case studies, Davis examines the rise of black federated fundraising organizations in the mid-twentieth century in response to discriminatory practices inside the United Way system. In the process of engaging the origins of groups like the Brotherhood Crusade of Los Angeles and the United Black Fund in Washington D.C., he articulates a psychology of black giving to identify motivations behind charitable donations in black communities.

  1. Giddings, Paula J. Ida: A Sword among Lions. New York: Amistad, 2008.

Giddings tells the life story of Ida B. Wells, the activist journalist and suffragist who spoke and wrote the scourge of lynching into the national conscience through her voice and pen around the turn of the twentieth century. Wells’s investigative journalism exposed the barbarity of America’s practice of lynching. The crusader brought detail and discipline to the study of mob violence and believed that using data to raise public awareness would make society better.

  1. LaRoche, Cheryl Janifer. Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014.

LaRoche centers the role of free black people and their churches, literary societies, fraternal groups, and community organizations in the creation and maintenance of the Underground Railroad in the nineteenth century. She offers a more complete picture of the black philanthropic and associational ecology that surrounded and enabled the efforts of the more familiar Harriet Tubman and Quaker abolitionists.

  1. Perry, Imani. May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

Not only a history of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” this text chronicles the song’s use by twentieth-century black voluntary organizations to build black civic identity and sustain communal investment in the fight for equality from generation to generation. Perry develops the concept of black formalism to explain the internal culture of black voluntary associations and the processes by which African Americans forged and nurtured a collective moral imagination and civic identity based upon the rituals and practices of the community organizations they founded and funded.

  1. Skocpol, Theda, Ariane Liazos, and Marshall Ganz. What a Mighty Power We Can Be: African American Fraternal Groups and the Struggle for Racial Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

In response to the literature on fraternalism that dismissed black fraternal orders as unimportant and inconsequential, Skocpol and her colleagues offered this keen investigation into African American associational life during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. They argue that black fraternal orders were not merely imitations of discriminatory white fraternals, but distinctive purveyors of mutual aid and contributors to American civic life that figured largely in daily black survival and the movement for equality and civil rights.

  1. Winch, Julie. Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Born free in 1766, James Forten, the sail-making entrepreneur who created significant wealth, was a funder and vocal supporter of abolition. Winch uncovers details about Forten’s business and philanthropy, including providing start-up funding for William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator newspaper and leading anti-slavery societies. Her book offers a look at the complex and civically-engaged lives of free African Americans in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.

-Tyrone McKinley Freeman

Tyrone McKinley Freeman, Ph.D. is assistant professor of philanthropic studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. His manuscriptEqually Generous and American: The Philanthropic Life of Madam C.J. Walker is under contract with the University of Illinois Press. He can be reached at

2 thoughts on “7 Ways to Read around the History of Philanthropy’s Diversity Problem this Black History Month

  1. I’m delighted to see this post. Thank you for this list of readings. A long time ago, when I first started teaching philanthrpy at Harvard Kennedy School with Peter Frumkin, we got very useful questions from students, “why are all the subjects of texts and cases white males?” Really, how is it that we still hear first about Carnegie and Rockefeller? I found four women to profile in cases, one of whom was Madame C J Walker. I loved her story. I ended up pointing out that she was probably the first entrepreneur who encouraged employee volunteerism and philanthropy through her “Walker Clubs.” And, unlike many of our big philanthropists today, she was an activist who took on America’s tolerance of lynching by trying to see the President to advocate for policy against it.
    Christine Letts


    • Thanks, Christine. That Harvard case study was an important contribution, as is the latest one about the new owner of the Walker cosmetics line, Richilieu Dennis. You’ll be happy to know that some additional primary sources have become available since the case study was done and, in my book, I will be presenting an even more detailed treatment of the Walker clubs and their role in engaging Walker agents in doing good and speaking truth to power while selling products.


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