Booker T. Washington Illustrates the Importance of Private Giving

As February’s Black History Month comes to a close, Philanthropy Roundtable Adjunct Senior Fellow Patrice Onwuka pays homage to the philanthropic work of Booker T. Washington, who fought for educational and economic opportunities for Black people in post-slavery America.  In an op-ed published in Real Clear Education, Onwuka writes that many of Washington’s philanthropic contributions were private – and demonstrate why anonymous giving was important then … and now.  

Below are excerpts from the op-ed entitled “The Quiet Philanthropy of Booker T. Washington”: 

Just as donors have every right to give their money–whether vast or modest–to whatever cause they choose, and by whatever means they choose, they also have the right to do so without putting their name on it. And, they owe no one an explanation. 

Take the example of Booker T. Washington. Washington was a fierce crusader for the educational emancipation and economic upliftment of Black people in America. At a time when public dollars spent to educate Black children were a fraction of what was spent on white children, Washington marshaled private philanthropic investment from captains of industry–Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Julius Rosenwald–and the Black community to erect in the segregated south ‘the vanguard of education for African-American children.’ As admirable as his accomplishments were, his own private giving reveals how anonymity and strategic giving advance racial equality and opportunity for all.  


Washington took special care to cover his tracks. He corresponded with his network of operatives using pseudonyms and employed codes to describe money he and others gave. For example, he convinced the leading Black rights organization of the time to launch a test case against a New Orleans Grandfather clause–a common voting restriction that permitted men to register to vote only if they could have voted in 1867 (before Blacks could vote) or descended from an 1867 voter. In contributions to the organization for the test case campaign, Washington was listed as ‘X. Y. Z.’ and the gifts he marshaled from others as ‘per X. Y. Z.’ It’s reported that he urged his colleagues never to use his name advising that keeping his participation secret would be more beneficial. 

Giving quietly is just as relevant today as it was in Washington’s day. Americans who give anonymously choose to do so for various reasons, from religious belief to personal safety. Out of humility, they may want to keep attention focused on the recipients of gifts, or they may worry about backlash for supporting controversial causes.” 

Please continue reading “The Quiet Philanthropy of Booker T. Washington” at Real Clear Education 

Get the Latest News on the Freedom to Give

Sign up today for our Philanthropic Freedom Newsletter, and each month we’ll send you the latest public policy news from around the country, plus policy research, analysis and more.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.