To celebrate Black History Month, Philanthropy Roundtable is honoring the numerous contributions Black entrepreneurs and philanthropists have made throughout our nation’s history. From expanding access to education to building up entire communities, we highlight five generous community leaders and innovators who made it their life’s work to empower others by creating opportunities that lead to productive and successful futures.
Avele Shakur, BUILD: Ayele Shakur is the chief executive officer of BUILD, a national nonprofit, that addresses the problem of how “our education system does not prepare students for our 21st century workforce.” BUILD’s mission is to use entrepreneurship to unlock the potential of young people living in disadvantaged communities, because if we want to build a strong future for tomorrow, we need to empower students of all backgrounds by teaching them how to “develop the skills and connections needed” to gain economic security and freedom.
In an interview with Philanthropy Roundtable, Shakur said, “Students today often don’t see the relevance in what they’re learning, and we’re at a critical moment in our nation’s history to make education relevant. … It’s time we equip young people with the skills they need to lead as a generation of entrepreneurial changemakers.”
With more than three decades of experience as an innovator in inner-city education, Shakur believes young people need to be able to thrive in an uncertain world. BUILD teaches students, “Spark Skills”: communication, collaboration, problem-solving, innovation, grit and self-management. The goal is to increase self-awareness, confidence and proficiency, helping young people to be the CEOs of their own lives.
Robert Woodson, The Woodson Center: Robert Woodson, founder and president of The Woodson Center, created the center to help residents of low-income neighborhoods address problems facing their communities.
A former civil rights activist, Woodson has always been a peacemaker, even when targeted by racism himself. He believes solutions to social problems cannot be solved through violence, but instead by training and utilizing strong community leaders.
For more than 40 years, The Woodson Center has emphasized local solutions, free market values and faith as a pathway for Black communities to access the American dream. In The Wall Street Journal, Woodson wrote, “Today’s social justice warriors trade on the currency of oppression, deriding the concept of personal responsibility and always blaming external forces. I can think of no better way to instill hopelessness and fear in a young person than to tell him he is a victim, powerless to change his circumstance.”
The Woodson Center’s programs include a K-12 Black history and character curriculum, which tells positive stories about Black Americans, and a new initiative called Voices of Black Mothers United, which connects mothers of fallen children in Black communities. Woodson’s powerful impact within Black communities demonstrates a clear vision of how to achieve a just and equal society and ensure everyone has access to the American dream.
Philanthropists Who Paved the Way
Booker T. Washington: One of the leading Black intellectuals and philanthropists of the Reconstruction era was Booker T. Washington. Washington, born enslaved, worked hard throughout his life and became famously known as the founder and president of Tuskegee Institute. A fierce crusader for educational advancement and economic opportunities for Black Americans, Washington pioneered these causes in part by organizing philanthropic investments from none other than Andrew Carnegie, Julius Rosenwald and John D. Rockefeller. He also gave his own funds privately.
In his autobiography, Washington wrote, “I have often heard persons condemned for not giving away money, who, to my own knowledge, were giving away thousands of dollars every year so quietly that the world knew nothing about it.”
Washington continued to build relationships that supported the Tuskegee Institute and eventually secured funding to construct over 5,000 schoolhouses for Black children across the South. Through Washington’s efforts, the Federal Reserve estimates that 30% of the educational achievements of Blacks during the 1910s and 1920s were credited to these schools. Washington’s timeless and quiet contributions provided pathways to opportunity and left a legacy few can match.
Madam C.J. Walker: Walker is undeniably one of the most well known philanthropists of her time, earning the reputation as the first female self-made millionaire. Although she denied that title during her lifetime, Walker’s entrepreneurial spirit did lead her to great success in marketing and founding own business. Upon her death in 1919, her estate was worth roughly $600,000, or $8 million today, which she largely left to charity.
The subject of a recent Netflix series starring actress Octavia Spencer, Walker’s incredible story began when she was orphaned as a child. Hoping to escape a life of poverty, she married at 14 and became a young mother only to be widowed by the passing of her first husband. She moved to St. Louis with her three-year-old daughter and took up back-breaking work as a washerwoman, earning $1.50 per day to provide for them. She remarried in 1894, but soon found herself supporting a drunken and abusive husband as well.
Determined to build a better life, Walker left her husband in 1903 and took a job as a sales agent for a St. Louis businesswoman who sold hair restoration products. Success in sales built Walker’s confidence, and in 1905, she started her own line of hair care products, specifically for African-American women. Traveling around the country, her product was met with high demand as she turned a mail-order business into a national haircare empire. In less than a decade, Walker became a self-made icon for Black women and an advocate for their economic independence. She empowered Black women through her company’s training programs—teaching them about entrepreneurship—and at the height of her business, she employed thousands of sales agents.
Walker once said, “I had to make my own living and my own opportunity! But I made it! That is why I want to say to every Negro woman present, don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
With her generous philanthropy, Walker focused on uplifting the Black community by funding educational opportunities and historically Black institutions like Tuskegee Institute. She supported a variety of causes from her local church to African-American artists to the NAACP’s anti-lynching efforts. Through her vast philanthropic activity and hard work, Walker gave countless individuals the tools and inspiration needed to create a better life for themselves.
Oseola McCarty: A pioneer in philanthropy known for her extraordinary work ethic and humility, Oseola McCarty dropped out of school in the sixth grade to care for her ailing aunt. Instead of returning to school, she provided for her family by taking up her aunt’s work as a washerwoman and saved every penny.
“Hard work gives your life meaning,” stated McCarty. “Everyone needs to work hard at somethin’ to feel good about themselves. Every job can be done well, and every day has its satisfactions. … If you want to feel proud of yourself, you’ve got to do things you can be proud of.”
By the time she retired in 1995, she had saved $280,000. Instead of spending it on herself, she immediately gave it away. One beneficiary of her philanthropy was the University of Southern Mississippi in the amount of $150,000. McCarty funded scholarships for students in need and gave them the opportunity for an education she never had. Her gift inspired more than 600 men and women to give to the fund and triple her original endowment. The University of Southern Mississippi still presents several full-tuition McCarty scholarships to deserving students every year.
McCarty, like many philanthropists, knew that giving to others is its own joy and fulfillment. Her incredible legacy will live on and multiply through the lives of the students her gift continues to support today.
For more about prominent Black philanthropists, including those who helped fund the fight to end slavery, click here.