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The DNA of Black philanthropy

August 9, 2021 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose


This guest column was written by Erinn Corbett-Wright, VP – Charitable Foundation Program Manager, Office of Charitable and Community Giving of TD Charitable Foundation.
Black philanthropy is ancestral. Prioritizing community well-being and collective progress are the backbone of what it means to be Black in America.

It is epigenetic, or hard-wired into our DNA, given the experiences of our ancestors. When we lacked external support during our time in bondage and had no lasting remediation for enslavement post-Reconstruction, we had each other.

In considering all that we have been through, combined with our country’s penchant for capitalism, a complex philanthropic identity begins to emerge.

Historically, the Black philanthropic identity has been nuanced because dominant culture has considered Black people to be philanthropy’s beneficiaries, not its proponents. This definition is exclusionary at best, given that Black philanthropy cannot be confined to gifts of treasure.

Black Philanthropy Month celebrates our identity as communal givers.

Black Philanthropy Month (BPM), founded by Dr. Jackie Bouvier Copeland and the Pan-African Women’s Philanthropy Network, celebrates our identity as communal givers. This giving should be elevated as the most altruistic version of philanthropy since Black Americans, regardless of personal resources, gave of what they had to support each other.

Economic opportunity cannot be divorced from public policy in America.

As BPM is observed every August, there are events that demonstrate the need to include political and collective action within our definitions such as:

  • The March of Washington for Freedom and Jobs (8/28/1965)
  • The anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till (8/28/1955)

And while these events are national, there is significant relevance for the month of August to the fight for liberation in Philadelphia:

  • On August 1, 1944, after the Philadelphia Trolley Company (PTC) hired 8 Black trolley workers, 4,500 white trolley workers began to strike refusing to work in an integrated company.
    • The War Labor Board orders their return to work but the men ignore the request, causing a 70% drop in production of wartime materials in Philadelphia.
    • By August 3, President Roosevelt ultimately intervenes by sending an Army general to take control of Philadelphia’s Transit System
    • Racially-based violence was happening throughout the city but it reaches a fever pitch when a 13-year old Black boy was shot and killed by white vigilantes in support of the strike.
    • On August 5, 5,000 soldiers arrive in Philadelphia and are given an ultimatum: Workers refusing work would be taken off the payroll, would not be given the working permits required to find other employment, and if aged 18-37, striking workers would also lose their draft deferments.
    • In a move that evokes what happened this past January with the storming of the US Capitol, leaders of the strike are arrested and charged with violating the Smith Connally Act.
    • By August 6, workers sign written agreements stating that they’ll return to work the following day.
    • On Tuesday, August 9, 1944 the Philadelphia Trolley Company welcomes back 7 out of the 8 hired Black workers, marking the integration of the transit system.
    • By October 1944, the number of Black drivers doubles to 15.
  • On August 3, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood with Black Philadelphians as they protested for the integration of Girard College by giving a speech at the demonstrations planned by local activists, including the late Cecil B. Moore (yes, THAT Cecil B. Moore). Martin Luther King marched and demonstrated at the corner of 39th Street and Lancaster Avenue — where his “Now is the Time” speech remains commemorated in a statue today.
    • Thanks to the Civil Rights in a Northern City Collection at Temple University, you can watch him call for the integration of the school here.

These events of political and collective action led to the economic mobility of Black children and families within the city.

From our Partners

As we observe the 77th anniversary of the integration of Philadelphia’s transit systems, SEPTA continues to be a major sustaining-wage employer of Black Philadelphians. And some of our city’s leaders, like Omar Woodard, are beneficiaries of the life-changing educational opportunities provided by Girard College.

Contributing to the economic growth of community is a byproduct of political action and a direct goal of most philanthropy. Leaders of the time didn’t physically dig into their pockets and hand out dollars to Black Philadelphians, but they removed the political and bureaucratic barriers to economic self-sufficiency for thousands.

In thinking about my own professional journey, I am more aligned to non-monetary indicators of the Black philanthropic spirit.

Remember how I said that Black philanthropy is ancestral?

This past February, I had the great joy of watching my very distant cousin, director Kasi Lemmons (most notably, Eve’s Bayou) learn about our family’s history on Finding Your Roots with Dr. Henry Louis Gates. 

I learned that my great-great grandfather, Primus Lemon was offered liberation after fighting in the Civil War and chose to return to bondage so that he could figure out what freedom meant for his entire family (including my great grandfather, Prime). This dedication to collective progress earned Primus respect from Black and white Alabamans alike.

During the Reconstruction Era, the Lemon family owned significant plots of land (gifts of gratitude from Primus’ previous owners) and provided food and sharecropping opportunities for the Black community around Bessemer, Alabama without the same restrictive terms as white landowners. My great-grandfather, Prime, was a preacher and community leader who continued to own and share the land his father made possible.

Collective progress and community well-being are responsibilities that I cannot shake even if I wanted to.

It’s in my DNA to consider my personal growth as inextricably tied to the progress of my people. Policy and bureaucracy often create boundaries that limit the potential of historically excluded communities. This forces a marriage between political action and direct relief within the Black Philanthropic tradition.

In my work, this means considering the political implications of every funding decision I make and directly citing the policies that my investments are guided by.

Since being at TD that has meant:

  • managing the Housing for Everyone competition so individuals and families who rent would have access to $4.9 million in rent relief and supportive services without the procedural hurdles required by government relief. This strategy was especially important to me since Black women and families continue to face the greatest threat of eviction.
  • executing a $2 million giving strategy to enable CDFIs to extend dollars and technical assistance to Black and brown business owners left out of Federal relief opportunities at the height of the pandemic.
  • leading a relationship between TD and Grameen America to give capital to more than 500 Black and Latina women businessowners who were ineligible for SBA pandemic-related loans in cities along the East coast.
  • combatting the digital divide in 2021 by launching a partnership with FirstBook as a presenting sponsor of the Black Kids Matter Juneteenth campaign of the Stories for All project so that 13,000 children from Maine to Florida have access to the tech hardware and books necessary to promote positive literacy attitudes.

The ongoing responsibility to community is what Black Philanthropy Month is all about. We musn’t confine our identities as philanthropists to the dollars we spend. The truth of our reality as Black philanthropists is more than that.

This August, consider how you show up fully to uplift and activate your philanthropy. Is it gifts of time and treasure? Is it your advocacy and sponsorship? Let me know in the comments, join some BPM events, and check out the playlist Benevolent Bars: Black Philanthropy Month 2021 on Tidal.

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