Matel Dawson

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Black History
Role Models
An average American but an extraordinary philanthropist, Matel Dawson Jr. (1921-2002) gave away $1.3 million dollars to charity over his lifetime. Though he earned no more than $100,000 a year, his donations helped fund activities at Detroit-area and Louisiana churches and scholarships at Wayne State University. Other recipients of Dawson's generosity included the United Negro College Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and various local colleges.

Biographical Highlights

As an average American but an extraordinary philanthropist, Matel Dawson Jr. (1921-2002) died only a few months after his retirement, having given away $1.3 million dollars to charity over his lifetime. His donations helped to fund activities at various Detroit-area and Louisiana churches, in addition to scholarships at Wayne State University. Other recipients of Dawson's generosity included the United Negro College Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and assorted local colleges. At various interviews and public appearances, Dawson credited his parents with instilling in him "a strong work ethic and respect for others." It is after them that his endowed scholarship at Wayne State University is named (Sakely 2003).

Historic Roots

Born the fifth of seven children in 1921, Matel Dawson Jr. learned the value of hard work at a young age. He left school in the ninth grade to help support his family in Shreveport, Louisiana. By the time he was eighteen, Dawson had moved to Detroit in search of a better job. In the days of Jim Crow, the North held better prospects for an African American man. He quickly landed a job with Ford Motor Company where he worked for over sixty years. Dawson retired at the age of eighty-one.

Although never receiving more than an eighth grade education, Matel Dawson valued higher education as a key to success for students of all races and backgrounds. Those beliefs are found throughout his family. His niece, for example, earned a Master's degree in education and is the principal of West Shreveport Elementary School, where Dawson attended school as a child (Pederson 2003). As a testimony to his commitment, over his lifetime, Dawson donated over $600,000 to Wayne State University alone. He called the Michigan institution his "favorite university" (Reynolds 2003). In 1996 he received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from WSU, a gesture to recognize his contributions to the university (Sakely 2003).

Although, at one time, he owned a large house and nice cars, Dawson adopted a more modest lifestyle after divorcing his wife of thirty-four years in 1977. He drove a used car and moved into a small apartment. As a forklift rigger at Ford's Rouge Center in Dearborn, Michigan, he often worked seven days a week and put in overtime. These work habits afforded him a $100,000 a year salary by the time he retired (Reynolds 2003). After retirement, Mr. Dawson stayed active at People's Community Church in Detroit, where he had been a member for decades. Additionally, he enjoyed the company of his daughter, JoAnn Dawson Agee, and grandson, Anthony Wayne Dawson (Pederson 2003).


Hailed as the "blue collar" or "forklift" philanthropist, Dawson's charitable activities call to mind those of Oseola McCarty, a washerwoman who donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi (University of Southern 2003). Donations like Dawson's and McCarty's illustrate the significance of the "average" person devoted to helping others and their potential impact on the field of philanthropy. Dawson's exceptional generosity serves as a model for nontraditional philanthropy; his contributions show that one need not be a millionaire - or live like one - to give away over one million dollars to nonprofit organizations and to make a lasting change on the lives of fellow citizens.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Dawson's donations affected some of the most prominent and well-established African American nonprofit organizations in the United States. The NAACP and United Negro College Fund use donations to fund various programs ranging from lobbying for civil rights to scholarships for corporate internship programs. His giving to Wayne State University was designated to use his funds for an endowed scholarship, stipulating that it be awarded on a need basis to full-time students of any race (Reynolds 2003).

Parade and People magazines honored Dawson for his philanthropy, as did ACDelco with their highly regarded Trumpet Award. Throughout numerous television and newspaper interviews, he insisted that he had enough for himself and encouraged others to save and then give away some of their money, too. He desired to leave a legacy that would encourage future generations to realize that they could overcome nearly any obstacle and find success in whatever path they chose.

Key Related Ideas

Endowed scholarships are one of the best ways for a donor or donors to determine how their money will be used at the university or college of their choice. As in Matel Dawson's case, the donor can stipulate the criteria for recipients, the amount to be awarded, and the number of scholarships to be awarded in a given timeframe. The endowed scholarship has become a popular way to honor or memorialize a loved one (in this case, Dawson's parents). Additionally, the initial donation for the scholarship is ideally invested so that only a portion of the interest is spent on scholarships each year. Thus, the scholarship will continue to be awarded long after the death of the donor.

Important People Related to the Topic

Oseola McCarty donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi in July 1995 after earning a living doing laundry and ironing out of her home for nearly seventy-five years. Although known for living frugally and saving her whole life, Miss McCarty's donation astonished even those who knew her well. The university now has an endowed scholarship in her name.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) - Formed in 1909, the NAACP works for the protection of civil rights for African Americans and other minorities. Through a system of local, regional, and national offices, the NAACP has confronted and affected change on issues such as lynching, segregation, and apartheid, to name a few. Currently, the organization focuses heavily on black voter turnout and full African American political empowerment.

United Negro College Fund - The UNCF offers scholarship programs for students attending historically black colleges and universities, as well as those attending other UNCF-affiliated institutions. In addition to scholarships, the UNCF offers a large number of internships with major American corporations. Since 1944, the UNCF has led the way in the field of education for the African American community.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • ____. " Ex-Wilmington Man Embodied Spirit of Giving. " Daily Breeze (March 28, 2003).
  • ____. "Retired Forklift Rigger Gives Away $1.3 Million." The Detroit News (May 11, 2002).
  • Pederson, William D. "Matel Matt Dawson Jr.'s Legacy," Louisiana Lincolnater.
  • Reynolds, Tom. "Blue Collar Philanthropist Establishes Memorial Scholarship." Wayne State University Campus News.
  • Sakely, Tom. "Wayne State Benefactor Matel Dawson Jr. Dies at 81." Wayne State University Campus News.
  • University of Southern Mississippi. Oseola McCarty: A Very Special Lady, The Gift. [cited 10 April 2003]. Available from .


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning to Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.