(Booker T. Washington. Library of Congress Photograph)
By Regennia N. Williams, PhD
Distinguished Scholar of African American History and Culture
August is Black Philanthropy Month, and the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) is using social media posts and other online information to call attention to the rich history of Black philanthropic giving in Cleveland and around the world. This initiative comes on the heels of the successful fall 2019 WRHS run of “Giving Back: The Soul of Philanthropy, Reframed and Exhibited.” Created by Valaida Fullwood and photographer Charles W. Thomas, the “Giving Back” traveling exhibition also inspired the semi-permanent “The Soul of Philanthropy, Cleveland” exhibition that remained on view at the Cleveland History Center through the first quarter of 2020 and is scheduled to travel to other local venues in the near future.
Today, we salute Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). Born in slavery in the state of Virginia, Washington went on to become one of the most celebrated champions of self-help, industrial, agricultural, and normal school education; and individual and corporate philanthropy that benefitted members of the Black community.
In his autobiography, Up From Slavery (1901), Washington described his journey from the plantation world to that of the academy, where he served as the long-time principal of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute and became one of the most powerful and influential leaders of his day. Up from Slavery offers many examples of Black philanthropy, including those described in the passage below, in which Washington attempts to capture the beauty of Southern Black vernacular speech and the generosity of Tuskegee’s Black donors:
It was often pathetic to note the gifts of the older coloured people, most of whom had spent their best days in slavery. Sometimes they would give five cents, sometimes twenty-five cents. Sometimes the contribution was a quilt, or a quantity of sugarcane. I recall one old coloured woman who was about seventy years of age, who came to see me when we were raising money to pay for the farm. She hobbled into the room where I was, leaning on a cane. She was clad in rags; but they were clean. She said: “Mr. Washin’ton, God knows I spent de bes’ days of my life in slavery. God knows I’s ignorant an’ poor; but,” she added, “I knows what you an’ Miss Davidson [a teacher and Washington’s future wife] is tryin’ to do. I knows you is tryin’ to make better men an’ better women for de coloured race. I ain’t got no money, but I wants you to take dese six eggs, what I’s been savin’ up, an’ I wants you to put dese six eggs into de eddication of dese boys an’ gals.”
Since the work at Tuskegee started, it has been my privilege to receive many gifts for the benefit of the institution, but never any, I think, that touched me so deeply as this one.
As much as he appreciated the contributions from the Black community, he also welcomed philanthropic support from wealthy White industrial capitalists. Historian Louis Harlan referred to Washington as “The Wizard of Tuskegee” and devoted an entire chapter of a 1983 book by this title to a discussion of “Other People’s Money.” According to Harlan, Washington, “found his chief partners in philanthropy [including John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie] in New York, and he directed their interest not only to Tuskegee but to other black schools, including the colleges and the public schools.”
In 1900, Washington established the National Negro Business League to improve economic conditions in the Black community and to support the owners of small businesses and farms. By 1908, Clevelanders, inspired by the NNBL and its affiliates, had established the National Association of Colored Men. Washington also had many devoted followers among club women in Cleveland. An article in a special January 1905 Women’s issue of The Cleveland Journal, for example, reported that two literary societies, the Minerva Reading Club and the Friday Study Club, hosted a banquet in Washington’s honor, and “more than 200 of the most prominent colored people in northern Ohio” attended the event. Booker T. Washington and the members of the aforementioned organizations are among the millions of 20th-century American citizens who chose to “give Black.”