Black women philanthropists are essential to the growth of the philanthropic space and yet are often sidelined. Seemingly, some of the core guiding principles responsible for their philanthropic activism include community building and advancement, leveraging access and equity, religion and faith, and sparking change within their communities and beyond.
For as long as I can remember, my late mother had always been an ardent practicing Christian who believed in the need to pay tithe. Tithe can be defined as giving away a tenth of one’s earnings on a weekly, biweekly, or monthly basis, depending on when one receives his or her earnings. In retrospect, she was a philanthropist. However, neither she nor anyone around her referred to her as such. She simply referred to it as giving, an act that must be practiced because it was part of her duty as a Christian and human being. Beyond the church, she gave to other individuals and causes both in cash and in kind. From her, I learned that giving in any form is the way of life. Her perspective on giving has influenced me, making me an individual donor to organizations such as St. Jude’s and Voices of Our City Choir, among others, besides being a monthly tithe payer myself.
Giving is how humanity, not only in the philosophical sense but also in the literal sense of bringing life into the world, progresses. Besides my mother, many other everyday Black women in my day-to-day life practice giving or philanthropy but either do not categorize themselves as philanthropists or do not keep account of their giving habits enough to recognize their philanthropic patterns. Whether known or unknown, Black women philanthropists have contributed to a variety of causes and as such deserve recognition. By delving into their motivations and personal histories, this article highlights the contributions of four Black women philanthropists who span all the way from the 18th century to the 21st century.
History of Black Philanthropy
Prior to being titled “philanthropy,” it was commonly referred to as “mutual aid.” When it comes to Black philanthropy in organized form, it is known to have its roots in the church, fraternal organizations, and this notion of mutual aid. In 2012, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors reported that “each year…Black donors give away 25 percent more of their incomes than white donors.” They further added that approximately two-thirds of black households contribute donations of about $11 billion per year. There is no doubt these statistics are outstanding and need to be recognized on a more national scale. Yet, the opposite happens—they are obscured. Partly because emphasis is not placed on Black philanthropy, and also because Black people are “uncomfortable” (Ashley, 2021) with the title “philanthropist.” As noted in this same report, Judy Belk, a senior vice president at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, believed it had something to do with a lack of representation within this space. Surely, this could be a contributing factor; however, I would add that the grandiosity of the term also has something to do with people’s reluctance to identify as philanthropists.
Why the Hesitation to Being Labeled “Philanthropist”?
For many of these Black women givers, as I like to refer to them, it seems as though philanthropy did not necessarily start as a way to majestically flaunt their wealth. As a matter of fact, many of them are not and were not wealthy. Instead, it started as a way to meet the real needs of people they knew in their everyday lives—neighbors, family members, the church, and social causes, among others. They viewed philanthropy as an act of giving—a way to help. Considering the disenfranchised history of African Americans, for instance, we are reminded that quite often, if they didn’t find ways to raise funds in support of community-related causes, the government would not support them. One of the things these forthcoming black philanthropists do very well is take the performance out of philanthropy and instead make it a way of life in a form that is accessible and understandable to others around them.
Mini-Profiles of a Cohort of Philanthropists
Steph Azunwie is an everyday 29-year-old, 21st-century woman who maintains no specific title as a philanthropist. She, like my mother, abides by the “10% tithe” principle. Every paycheck, she subtracts ten percent of her biweekly earning. Except her practice has been modified. From her 10%, Steph is able to give to the church, give to a select orphanage of her choosing, and support an additional charitable cause.
With roots in Ghana and witnessing how some people struggled with being able to afford daily necessities while growing up, Steph learned from an early age the importance of giving to others. When asked about the inspiration behind her motivation for giving, she noted the following reasons: “spiritual/religious duty”; her mother, saying specifically, “I saw my mother give, and it was instilled in me to continue”; and that “it’s a way of leveling the playing field for the people I give to as much as possible.” Steph’s account hearkens to my earlier points about removing performance from philanthropy and instead giving to fulfill the needs of community-related causes.
Another important factor about her giving is that, for the most part, she makes it anonymously. When asked why, she responded, “Help others because you really want to. Not because you want others to know about it.” She further added, “I often try to put myself in the shoes of those I am helping. It is enough that people have to get to the point where they have to ask for help. You don’t need to make them feel bad about it. If I asked for help, I wouldn’t want my helpers parading around the fact that they helped me.”
Steph’s story is important to this conversation because as a 21st-century millennial Black career woman, she represents an important subset within the space of Black women in philanthropy. She is proof that young Black people are an actionable demographic whose words and actions are in alignment, contrary to popular belief.
Born in 1908, Oseola McCarty was raised by her grandmother and aunt in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. In the sixth grade, she was compelled to resign from school in order to take care of her aunt, who had unfortunately fallen ill. Right from the age of eight, McCarty discovered, as she puts it, that she “loved work.” She earned money by ironing clothes and learned the importance of saving during her formative years, as she would go on to save all the monies she made in her “doll buggy.” Industrious, McCarty was said to have worked well into her later retired years. When asked more about her motivation for work, she responded by saying, “Work is a blessing.” The motivation behind McCarty’s philanthropy is ascribed to her “satisfaction of giving while living” and desire to provide young people with resources to pursue something she never had the opportunity to—an education.
By 1995 when she had retired, McCarty had saved $280,000 in the bank. Of these savings, she donated a lump sum of $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi in scholarships for students in financial need seeking education. A young lady by the name of Stephanie Bullock is said to have been the first recipient of McCarty’s donation.
Like many Black women of her time, her Christian values were partially responsible for her motivation. When queried about why she didn’t spend her savings on herself, McCarty responded, “I am spending it on myself.” This powerful statement is evidence of her strong belief in the Christian value, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This means she saw herself in those young people she was helping through scholarship. There is no act more selfless than helping others attain the dreams you could not attain. Similar to the previously discussed philanthropist, we see here that the notion of “paying it forward” is also relevant.
McCarty’s story is particularly outstanding because it caused a chain reaction. Once people found out about her act of generosity, it compelled over 600 people both in her home state of Mississippi and elsewhere to donate to her scholarship fund, which is now known as the McCarty scholarship.
Catherine Ferguson was born during slavery in 1779 while her mother was traveling from Virginia to New York. Her mother having been sold away when she was only eight served as a catalyst to Catherine’s quest to purchase her own freedom. Like many African Americans in this time, Ferguson desired to learn to read and write, and yet these were some of the very basic rights that were denied her. At 16 she found out it would cost $200—the equivalent of over $6,000 today—to buy her freedom. She found a woman who was willing to help her raise this amount. After 11 months of hard work, she raised $100 on her own, with the remainder coming from a fellow church member. To earn income, Ferguson became a baker; she was known for her excellent cakes.
Ferguson lived a life full of giving. Hers was unique in that it was engraved in service. As a Christian minister, Ferguson began providing for children to ensure they gained one skill she lacked—reading. She did this by convincing others who could read to teach those children. These reading workshops happened on Sundays when the children were taught to read the bible. In addition, Ferguson is credited with starting one of the first Sunday schools in New York City. Beyond this, she served as a foster parent, so that by the end of her life she had taken care of approximately 48 children, 20 of whom were white. Her contributions were so crucial because she went the extra mile to find the children suitable homes after a certain period of time.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
After experiencing the loss of two children during their infancy, it is not farfetched to interpret Ferguson’s acts of service as very personal. As with the others, faith played a role in her motivation for philanthropy. Other similarities include her ability to spark change within others that inspired them to join. An example of this is when her actions influenced her own minister to be part of the Sunday school movement by offering his church basement as a space to hold the Sunday school bible reading sessions.
When we hear about the Montgomery bus boycott, many often think about figures such as Rosa Parks. However, there were so many others who made the movement possible. Georgia Gilmore is among them. As an activist, midwife, and chef, Gilmore was integral to the bus boycott movement. She started out by preparing food, such as fried chicken sandwiches, which she sold to people gathered at the Montgomery Improvement Association at the Holt Street Baptist Church. She later proceeded to form a coalition of women who were also chefs in their own right to cook and sell meals such as fried fish, greens, potato pies, and rice “at beauty salons, cab stands, and churches” (Godoy, 2018).
Gilmore’s philanthropy is remarkable for several reasons. Beyond taking up the role of feeding hungry protestors, her financial contribution to the cause spoke volumes. She, along with the coalition of women she worked with, whom she later named “The Club from Nowhere,” invested most of the money they earned into the boycott movement. The money is said to have gone into paying “for the alternative transportation system that arose in Montgomery during the 381-day bus boycott” (Godoy). The monies also went into paying “for the insurance, gas, wagons, and vehicle repairs that kept that system going” (Godoy).
Another remarkable aspect of her philanthropy is that she, like those aforementioned, sparked action in others. Many of those women she worked with to produce food were known to have had grandparents who experienced slavery. Therefore, this was an opportunity for such women to fight for justice for their ancestors as well as themselves. Gilmore’s philanthropy was particularly strategic in that it incorporated both service and monetary donations. Her philanthropy was also profound because she used the art of food and cooking, both filled with so much history, especially in relation to the African American community, to champion and propel change.
To reiterate, some of the guiding principles that form the building blocks of Black women’s philanthropic activism include community building and advancement, leveraging access and equity, religion and faith, and sparking change within their various communities and beyond. As explored above in several examples, the recognition of philanthropy in relation to Black women philanthropists goes back as far as the 1700s. However, I would argue that the concept transcends the 1700s. Giving, whether in finances or in service, is embedded in Black culture—it is a way of life.
Perhaps some view their actions simply as giving, and not necessarily as the grandiose gesture that we know today as philanthropy. But the truth remains that in the way of the world as we know it, documentation, labeling, and publicization are how actions and people we come to recognize as influential in the world are anthologized. It is no wonder that many people, both within and outside of Black communities, find the need to shed light on Black Americans who have and continue to perform remarkable acts of kindness and in turn label them philanthropists. It is important that we recognize them as such, and in turn have others within the community see the importance of giving and become givers themselves.
African American Registry, “Catherine Ferguson, Minister born May 7, 1779,” Minneapolis, MN: AAREG, 2021.
Ashley, Dwayne, Tashion Macon, Ph.D., and Jennifer Jiles, 12 Top Pioneers of Black Philanthropy, Giving USA, March 1, 2021.
Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, “Catherine Ferguson,” Mapping the American Past, New York, NY: Columbia University, 2021.
Godoy, Maria, “Meet the Fearless Cook who Secretly Fed—And Funded—The Civil Rights Movement,” The Salt, Washington, DC: National Public Radio, January 15, 2018.
Glasrud, Bruce, “John H. Johnson (1918-2005),” Black Past, December 3, 2007.
Singletary, Michelle, “Black Americans donate a higher share of their wealth than Whites,” Washington Post, December 11, 2020.
W.K. Kellogg Foundation, with major contributions from Rockefeller Philanthropic Advisors, Cultures of Giving: Energizing and Expanding Philanthropy by and for Communities of Color, Battle Creek, MI: WKKF, January 2012.
Zinsmeister, Karl, “Oseola McCarty: Hall of Fame,” The Almanac of American Philanthropy, Washington DC, Philanthropy Roundtable, 2016.