African American Women and Philanthropy

Black History
African American women lend their strength and passion to a variety of community and philanthropic efforts. In history, they have been instrumental in assisting runaway slaves, educating fellow women, forming social organizations and advocating for civil rights. Had it not been for their strong philanthropic efforts, many social movements may not have been as powerful and lasting.


The term philanthropy is derived from the Greek word "philanthropia" meaning love of humanity or love of man. One formal definition of philanthropy is the effort to promote the well being of mankind. Philanthropy among individuals has primarily taken the form of charitable donations, social service networks, or associations. Philanthropy among African American women can be defined as a network of social services and associations to promote the well being of African Americans and civil society.

Historic Roots

Unlike mainstream philanthropy in the United States, which was based on the Elizabethan Poor Laws and the Statute of Charitable Uses, formal African American philanthropy originated in African American churches. These Baptist churches were formed as early as 1758 and existed only for a few decades. In 1831, laws were passed in the south forbidding African American Christians from worshiping unless white people were present; this was due to an increase in slavery and fear of revolt. As a result many communities conducted activities in secrecy. Women had an important role in the early African American churches; they were permitted to be deaconesses, members of separate women's committees, and delegates to meetings.


The female-based church groups served as a resource for the socioeconomic survival of the race and helped promote social change (Hine, 1997). The groups spoke out against slavery, lynching, and other social injustices and called for voting rights for African Americans. After the end of slavery, many of these groups evolved into nationally known organizations. Today, these organizations continue to promote the well being African Americans and all citizens through social service programs.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

African American women have been instrumental in assisting runaway slaves, educating fellow women, forming social organizations and advocating for civil rights. Had it not been for their strong philanthropic efforts, many social movements may not have been as powerful and lasting. For example, many African American women helped found educational facilities, trade schools, and scholarship funds. Other groups such as the National Council of Negro Women and the Links promote better living conditions in the local community. Many of the contributions of these groups have changed race relations, social services and education opportunities for African Americans, and the Civil and Women's Rights movements, in particular.

Key Related Ideas

  • Abolitionist Movement
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Organized Black Philanthropy
  • Progressive Movement
  • Women's Rights
  • Women's Suffrage Movement

Important People Related to the Topic

Though many African American women made great contributions, the following individuals are some of the foremothers who shaped African American philanthropy:

  • Madame C.J. Walker (1869-1919): The first African American female entrepreneur, millionaire and wealthy donor (Hall-Russell and Kasberg, 1997).
  • Harriet Tubman (1820-1913): An escaped slave who was famous for her work with the Underground Railroad. She risked her life when she returned to the south many times to help other slaves escape to freedom (Ibid).
  • Sojourner Truth (1797-1883): An abolitionist who demanded that African American women be included with whites when speaking of "women" and in the quest for civil rights. Truth also counseled Abraham Lincoln on race policy (Ibid).
  • Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955): Educator, activist, and government official. She founded a training institute for African American girls in Daytona Beach, Florida that later became the four-year college known as Bethune-Cookman College (Ibid).
  • Oseola McCarty (1908-1999): Donated $150,000 gift to the University of Southern Mississippi to help needy students. McCarty donated this money from her savings as a washerwoman. She was the recipient of the Wallenberg Humanitarian Award and an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Harvard University (McCarty, 1996).
  • Rosa Parks (1913- ): Known as the "mother" of the Civil Rights Movement. Parks sparked a Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. She was also one of the first women to join the Montgomery, Alabama NAACP (Giddings, 1984).

Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Baptist Churches
  • Black Sororities
  • Hale House
  • The Links
  • National Council of Negro Women
  • National Organization for Women


  • Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1984.
  • Hall-Russell, Cheryl and Robert H. Kasberg. African American Traditions of Giving and Serving: A Midwest Perspective. Indianapolis: Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 1997.
  • Hine, Darlene Clark. Encyclopedia of Black Women in America: Religion and Community. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1997.
  • McCarty, Oseola. Simple Wisdom for Rich Living. Marietta, Georgia: Longstreet Press, Inc., 1996.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Case Western Reserve University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Case Western Reserve University.