Generous roots: What Black philanthropy can teach us about resilient giving

Have you ever struggled to be generous when times are tough? What would you give if you didn’t own anything – not even your own life?

Cultivating a resilient spirit of abundance in the face of adversity is central to the Black American culture of giving. It’s an invaluable lesson for anyone who wants to develop the courage to live generously from a truly biblical perspective. And it’s a lesson historian Dr. Tyrone McKinley Freeman has researched extensively.

Freeman, who teaches both philanthropic studies and Africana studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, grew up in a generous family and church environment. He says the church itself is a philanthropic institution. 

This was communicated to him early in life, even without words, in how people took care of each other, how they organized to support their community, and in their activism. Philanthropy was not a word they used, but giving was a value and a regular practice.

However, as a historian researching African American philanthropy, Freeman recognized a gap in the record. No one was tracing the long history that brought a culture of giving from pre-colonial West Africa to America and still influences Black giving today. He recognized an opportunity to bridge that gap.

Through his research, he discovered that long traditions of mutual care seemed to endure, and even grow stronger, every time the community encountered adversity. “In the African American experience, philanthropy did not originate in wealth, but rather in resourceful efforts to meet social needs in the face of overwhelming societal constraints,” Freeman says. “It was less concerned with the exact form of gift giving than with the intent and appropriateness of the gift in responding to the need.”

The early roots of giving as a response to adversity

African American philanthropic traditions of caring and sharing are rooted in the way families were structured within communities in West Africa, Freeman says. “These traditions were carried across the Atlantic by enslaved people, and they survived that passage. We see evidence of this as enslaved people created community on southern plantations.”

During slavery, these traditions bonded African Americans together out of necessity. Their response to the horrific evils they experienced was to care for each other. “This gives rise to notions of others as your people, that you are all close,” he says. “Fictive kin were very much treated as family.”

“Fictive kin” is the idea that your family stretches beyond the bounds of your blood relations. “You have a larger group of people you are responsible for and take care of,” Freeman says. “You feel a sense of responsibility to me, and I feel responsible to you. You may not have that blood relation, but it feels as if you do.”

This tradition of caring in community grew stronger as time passed and as Black communities struggled against persistent injustices after emancipation. Freeman highlights these themes through the life story of a much-loved, African American businesswoman and philanthropist. In his book, Madam C. J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving, Walker’s story serves as a microcosm of the history of Black giving.

Though she is sometimes called America’s first female millionaire, focusing only on her wealth and business success is a miss, as Freeman sees it. “Limiting our understanding of Madam Walker’s philanthropy to financial gifts fails to show the depth and breadth of her giving and why it remains important today,” he says. “This distancing removes her from the broader normative giving structures among Black women (and African Americans, more generally) from which she emerged and alongside whom she gave.”

Madam C. J. Walker

Madam Walker was born in the Reconstruction-era South four years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and a year after the nation’s first Civil Rights Act passed in 1866. Orphaned by age 7 and widowed in her teens, she moved with her young daughter to St. Louis, where she was welcomed into the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She received aid through its network of social services for Black migrants, and she learned to give alongside the generous Black women of that community.

“After emancipation, there was an explosion of voluntary organizations,” Freeman explains. “Black churches, fraternal organizations, and other groups opened orphanages, schools, and homes to care for the elderly.”

In this culture of giving and caring, Walker learned to value generosity. The church was the bedrock institution, but the generosity expanded far beyond its walls. It morphed into women’s benevolence societies, social clubs, and suffrage crusades.

“These were mutual aid groups, where people were pooling resources and working together on issues of survival in the face of Jim Crow,” Freeman says.

Jim Crow

Jim Crow laws, which evolved from the 1860s all the way through the mid-1900s, were intentionally designed to limit and control African Americans. They hindered all kinds of gains Black Americans could have been making during Reconstruction. They brought underfunding of education for Black children and obstacles to voting for Black men and women. For decades, they institutionalized a system of separation the courts would later recognize as “denoted inferiority” and “stirred up aggression” toward African Americans.

Walker personified the kind of response to Jim Crow that carries the thread of generosity through to today. “In responding to those limitations, Black people gave to support each other, build their own institutions, and fight for justice and equality,” Freeman says.

Walker took a job with a Black-owned beauty company and honed her skills selling products. But, overall, the beauty industry was not designing products with Black women in mind. So, Walker started her own beauty company for Black women. She worked hard, learned how to market, and her success would eventually reach even beyond the U.S., because the complete absence of products like hers stretched to Central America, Jamaica, and Haiti as well.

Racial segregation and discrimination meant the needs of Black female customers were not being taken seriously. So, these discriminatory practices actually created a market Walker knew and could cater to.

“She sort of flips Jim Crow on its head and creates her own market,” Freeman says. And this is how she came into wealth.

As her financial resources increased, Walker continued to use them in service to others and to push for legislation that protected Black lives. She supported giving for social justice, fought against lynching, and campaigned for better education and women’s suffrage.

And though most companies didn’t hire Black women for sales or engage with them about their needs, Walker did. Having worked in kitchens and washrooms, she was acutely aware of their struggles. So, thousands of women were trained to sell. Black satchels in hand, these “beauty culturists” went door to door with her products.

Walker empowered her women employees, teaching them how to budget and encouraging them to create their own businesses. She organized them into clubs across the country and galvanized them to give to charity and participate in protests too. They eventually formed the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association. Giving was baked into everything Walker did and was used to launch others toward success.

20th Century Black giving and beyond

Even the Civil Rights Movement was philanthropic, Freeman says. This movement to make the world better for African Americans was supported by often-quiet, behind-the-scenes, financial support and families who invited marchers into their homes. He points out how difficult it is to imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. as anything but a pastor or to think of him succeeding in his mission without a generous church behind him.

Black giving didn’t start with Madam C.J. Walker or end with Martin Luther King, Jr. It blossomed and grew in churches and women’s clubs, in giving circles and fraternal organizations. As it encountered hardships, it pressed in with new solutions and more care.

This type of giving as a response to adversity and needs still exists in families, in organizations, and through communal ways of sharing that are part of daily life. It shows up now in movements for Black-led social change. All of this is generosity, an extension of traditions that existed even before the founding of America.

Tyrone McKinley Freeman is an award-winning scholar and teacher who serves as Associate Professor of Philanthropic Studies and Associate Professor of Africana at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. He has worked as a professional fundraiser for social services, community development, and higher education organizations and served as Associate Director of The Fund Raising School, where he trained nonprofit leaders in the United States, Africa, Asia, and Europe. His latest book, Madam C. J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy during Jim Crow (University of Illinois Press, 2020), is the result of his extensive research into the history of African American philanthropy.

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