Dr. Tyrone McKinley Freeman is an award-winning scholar and teacher, who serves as an assistant professor of philanthropic studies and director of undergraduate programs at Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Among other things, his research focuses on the history of African American philanthropy and philanthropy in communities of people of color (POC). In 2020, he published a book, “Madam C.J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy During Jim Crow,” which examines African American women’s history of charitable giving, activism, education and social service provisions through the life and example of Madam C.J. Walker. We recently spoke with Dr. Freeman about his research and how we can foster equity and inclusion in grantmaking.
In your writing, you note that there are common notions about the role of POC in philanthropy and challenge these. For example, you note that it is common to perceive POC as receivers of philanthropy, not as philanthropists themselves. Talk about this notion and why we might reframe the way we think about it.
Oftentimes, POC are perceived as receivers of philanthropy, rather than philanthropists themselves. This misconception stems from the history of race in the U.S. and the perceptions that have evolved over time, but it does not define reality. The rhetoric around philanthropy often is driven by the elite model of philanthropy – those with significant wealth often establish philanthropic vehicles, such as foundations and donor-advised funds (DAFs). This is a narrow definition of philanthropy.
Consider well-known industrialists who created philanthropic structures to benefit minority neighborhoods, which may have created an image that minority communities need to be fixed. However, that is just one perspective that does not show the dynamics of what’s going on in that community. It is important to honor the history, traditions and ways of being within these communities.
One goal of the book was to demonstrate the richness of the philanthropic tradition within the African American community. This is something that these communities have done from the beginning. Traditions of giving traveled across the Atlantic as a part of the slave trade and ended up on Southern plantations as enslaved people tried to build community. Even after the end of slavery, African American communities were historically underserved and, as a result, created their own social service organizations, which were funded within their own community. It was a way of expressing their own dignity and their own humanity in a world that constantly denied that they had such.
You’ve also challenged the notion that philanthropists of color often are referred to as “new and emerging.” While this label is intended to recognize the generosity and impact of people who are underrecognized, it may not reflect reality. Tell us more about that.
That language simply isn’t correct. The only place where they are new and emerging is to organizations that have been ignoring or not engaging them. They’ve been doing this from the beginning. If you examine the rich landscape of African American philanthropy today, you realize it’s everywhere. In philanthropy, we’re trying to come together to do something positive for the community, and that needs to extend to see communities of color as philanthropic agents who are actively doing things in their communities and who have organizations and initiatives that would benefit from more funding and partnerships. Again, you have to come into that respecting and understanding them on their own terms, rather than through these cloudy lenses that are more about stereotypes or lack of understanding.
You’ve spent a lot of time studying Madam C.J. Walker. Take us through the broad outline of who she was and why her philanthropy story is as important as her entrepreneurial story?
Madam C.J. Walker was born in 1867 on a cotton plantation in Louisiana as a freeborn child to former slaves. Living in the Jim Crow era, she was orphaned by age 7 and began working as a washer woman. She was married, had a child and became a widow all before the age of 20. She moved to St. Louis, where she was welcomed by the local Black community, particularly the church that help meet her needs as a widowed mother. After having what she believed to be a divine dream, she formulated her own beauty care products and started selling them door to door, which was the first step toward her beauty empire. She moved to Indianapolis in 1910, established the headquarters of the company, formerly incorporated it and the legend and history kind of took off from there.
There was a lot of attention on Walker’s entrepreneurship and the fact that she was the first self-made female millionaire in America. But what wasn’t well-known was the fact that she was very generous. I wanted to tell that part of the story. Her philanthropy began when she was a poor, orphaned widow and mother and grew over time, suggesting that philanthropy does not come from wealth, but from generosity and a sense of responsibility to your community. Wealth just becomes an accelerator. In other models of philanthropy, people may accumulate large sums of wealth first and then give back.1