Wealthy Americans, Meet Historically Black Colleges. Again.

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

November 05, 2012

When Booker T. Washington, an ex-slave, looked out at a sea of faces gathered to hear him speak on April 14, 1903, in New York's Madison Square Garden Concert Hall, he had an audience that any truly ambitious college president would covet. In addition to the former U.S. President Grover Cleveland, who introduced Washington, the crowd featured some of the wealthiest Americans of that era, including George Foster Peabody, Jacob Schiff, and one of the wealthiest men in the world, Andrew Carnegie.

"Every seat was filled and every inch of standing room crowded," according to a contemporaneous account in The New York Times. And given the audience's combined financial capacity, an effective appeal for financial support could have yielded transformational investments not just for the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), which Washington founded and led, but also for all historically black colleges and universities. Washington delivered a $350-million speech.

He spoke less about the unquestionable strain at HBCU's than about America's questionable future if their work went unsupported. He emphasized the duties and privileges of freedom and citizenship, and noted that "enduring progress" would result only from "the most complete education of hand and head." His strong case for black education dwarfed his controversial views on racial equality. Washington was captivating.

But why call it a $350-million speech? Because Carnegie responded by raising Tuskegee's endowment by $600,000, or the equivalent of nearly $350-million today when calculated as the relative share of gross domestic product. It was an amazing answer to a compelling appeal. Yet it was not nearly as impressive as the gathering itself.

Imagine that a current college or university president had a single-room audience with some of today's highest-net-worth individuals, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, and Michael Dell. Then imagine adding such wealthy African-Americans as Oprah Winfrey, Sean Combs, Robert L. Johnson, Tiger Woods, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Tyler Perry. Since the black church used to provide substantial support to HBCU's, add wealthy pastors like Creflo Dollar and T.D. Jakes.

Their philanthropic preferences aside, the combined wealth of such an awesome assembly would still be well over $100-billion short of the real and eventual GDP-relative wealth of those who convened in 1903 to hear Washington make the case for supporting Tuskegee and similar institutions.

So it is worth pondering three questions.

First, since 1903, what has happened between historically black colleges and America's richest philanthropists? Not much. While many of the iconic names from that Gilded Age still adorn buildings on historically black campuses, including Rockefeller, Benjamin N. Duke, and Robert C. Ogden, few names have been etched there in more recent years. Nearly everyone in that room in 1903 was dead by 1944, when Frederick Patterson and Mary McLeod Bethune launched the next great appeal to the nation's philanthropic community by establishing the United Negro College Fund. Their inaugural campaign raised $765,000 for 27 private black colleges and universities.

But giving to collective institutions is not the same as transforming individual ones. And not since 1987, when Bill and Camille Cosby gave $20-million for a building at Spelman College, has there been a publicized single, private mega-gift designed to perceptibly shift the trajectory of a historically black college. Enlightened foundations and corporations have sustained many of the colleges over the years, but their giving is different from individual, Carnegie-style, transformational investments. Moreover, since the era of billion-dollar college fund-raising campaigns began, in 1986, only four of the 105 HBCU's have launched capital campaigns in excess of $100-million.

While African-American wealth, if properly cultivated, could help make a meaningful difference for HBCU's, the unmet challenge of fundamentally transforming some of the more investment-worthy colleges requires a multiracial coalition of American philanthropists who recognize the value of those institutions to our shared American future.

Second, what are the prospects for recovering the substantial relationship between HBCU's and America's highest-capacity philanthropists?

Washington's basic 1903 message remains as relevant today as it was when first expressed. He urged wealthy Americans to advance Tuskegee in the name of the social stability, national security, and economic viability of the entire nation. Essentially, he widened the lens on black colleges and illuminated their work as a pathway to a more perfect union.

Perhaps a similarly broad appeal could now be made for today's historically black colleges, given their track record of overcoming great odds to effectively generate talent for America's successive agricultural, industrial, and information economies. By far their toughest task is to produce brain­power for today's knowledge economy, and that is why support from wealthy friends is so pivotal. To entice them to invest, college leaders must creatively amplify an appeal that once again convincingly centers on meeting the most challenging needs of the nation and world.

And third, how strong is the case for investing in each HBCU? Some appear poised for dynamic growth and program expansion; however, their strategic advancement may be achieved only through a new wave of capacity-building investments.

In this vein, it is instructive that Carnegie did not give 10 colleges $60,000 each. He chose to focus on the endowment of one rather than cover the current expenses of many. Accordingly, the distinctiveness required to spark a connection with today's newest philanthropists could be by campus rather than by category. And the next $350-million investment is likely to be based on the demonstrated capacity of specific campuses to produce competitive graduates in multiple fields, as Morgan State and North Carolina A&T State Universities are particularly effective at producing engineers and technologists, or as Morehouse, Spelman, and Tougaloo Colleges effectively produce competitive students in the sciences and mathematics, or as Fayetteville State University produces excellent teachers and entrepreneurs, to cite just a few examples.

To attract the notice and support of this century's Carnegies and Rockefellers, it is incumbent upon today's leaders of historically black colleges and universities to demonstrate how their institutions can turn out competitive, creative, and compassionate graduates worthy of substantial investment. And that is the stuff of the next $350-million speech.

John Silvanus Wilson Jr. is executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.