Philanthropy and Emancipation

On Thursday, June 17, President Biden signed into law a bill to commemorate June 19, 1865, the day Union troops reached Texas to officially bring an end to the enslavement of African-Americans in the Confederate states. (The bill was a rare priority shared by both the current president and his predecessor.) 

Students of history might recall that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation nearly two-and-a-half years earlier in 1862, outlawing slavery in Texas and other states engaged in rebellion. However, enforcement of this law was left to Union troops as they advanced through the South. Texas had been the last holdout.*

Now, almost 160 years after Union Army General Gordon Granger delivered General Order No. 3, freeing the last of the slaves in the Confederacy, Juneteenth, as it is known, is a national holiday.

While this new holiday will forever be associated with an act of military coercion, it is also worth remembering the voluntary acts of courage that advanced the emancipation movement and the voluntary acts of generosity that helped emancipated slaves live in freedom after the Civil War.

At the Roundtable, we’ve written previously about African-American entrepreneur and philanthropist Madam CJ Walker, the first Black female self-made millionaire, and Biddy Mason, the slave-turned-real estate mogul who gave millions to charity and founded the first Black church. (Check out those pieces here and here, respectively.)

But following are a few other perhaps lesser-known philanthropists who contributed to the cause of liberty and prosperity for enslaved African-Americans before and after the war. 

  • Stephen Smith: Born to an enslaved mother in 1795, and indentured to a lumberman, Stephen Smith learned the trade and made a fortune in lumber and real estate. After buying his own freedom the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania native supported abolitionist publications, such as the Emancipator and Freedmen’s Journal, and helped operate the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, Smith established the first home for aged and indigent people of color – a home that is still in existence today.
  • Thomy Lafon: Born into poverty in 1810, New Orleans Creole Thomy Lafon started early as an entrepreneur, selling food to workers, owning and operating his own store and brokering loans. However, he made his fortune in real estate, earning over $500,000 in his lifetime (worth about $14 million today). Lafon fought against the institution of slavery through philanthropic contributions and participation in the Underground Railroad. He also bequeathed large sums to organizations including a school for poor African-American children, a hospital and a home for aged persons of color.
  • John McKee: Alexandria, Virginia’s John McKee was born around 1819 and quickly indentured as a brickmaker. After moving north to Philadelphia to work in the restaurant business, McGee joined the Union Army, rising to the rank of colonel of the 8th New Jersey colored regiment. After the war, McGee would open his home to freed slaves heading north through Philadelphia. At the time of his death, McGee was known as one of the wealthiest African-Americans in the country. He left the bulk of that wealth to the Catholic Church to fund the cost of higher education for fatherless children.

Juneteenth at its core is about finally fulfilling the promise of America’s founding documents and extending the blessing of liberty to all Americans. This is certainly worthy of a national celebration. For as these stories suggest, it is only through liberty, opportunity and personal responsibility that the pursuit of happiness becomes possible.

*It would take six more months for slavery to end in two Union states, Kentucky and Delaware, following the ratification of the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude.

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