When African American businessman Robert F. Smith declared that he would pay off the student loan debt of the entire 2019 graduating class of about 400 young men from a historically black school, he provoked a frenzy. Footage of the jubilant graduates immediately went viral.
By Tyrone Freeman
As a historian of philanthropy, here’s what caught my eye: Smith said that he was making this roughly $40 million gift to Morehouse University on behalf of eight generations of his family with American roots.
On top of paying tribute to his ancestors, I see this generous act as an extension of the underappreciated heritage of African American philanthropy that began soon after the first enslaved Africans disembarked in Virginia in 1619.
The West African people put into slavery brought cultures of giving and sharing with them across the Atlantic. In 1847, for example, enslaved Africans in Richmond, Virginia donated money through their church to Ireland’s potato famine relief efforts. I believe that their ways of looking after others and pooling resources to survive forms the basis of giving by African Americans today.
And while Oprah Winfrey and basketball star LeBron James bring visibility to black philanthropy in unique ways, it’s important to realize that they contribute only a small share of the at least $11 billion African Americans give to charities each year.
Despite the toll that four centuries of slavery and discrimination have taken on black earnings, African Americans – regardless of their economic status – have long given generously of their money and time.