Nine Questions for Tyrone McKinley Freeman, Author of “Madam CJ Walker’s Gospel of Giving” — Inside Philanthropy

Tyrone McKinley Freeman, associate professor of philanthropic studies at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, recently won the Dan David Prize, the largest history prize in the world, alongside eight other outstanding early and mid-career scholars of history. He is the author of “Madam CJ Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy During Jim Crow,” released this past fall. The biography charts out the philanthropy of millionaire Madam CJ Walker (born in 1867), who aimed to empower African Americans and challenge the injustices and violence of Jim Crow.

I recently caught up with Freeman to chat about his book, what inspired him to write it, the history of Black philanthropy and the state of Black philanthropy today. Here are some excerpts from that conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity.

Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself and your work at the Lilly Family School?

Sure. I started working as a fundraiser. So that’s how I entered the field. And I worked for different organizations: a community development corporation, in youth and family social services, and then eventually, as a higher education fundraiser. And that kind of began my pathway in this direction of becoming a researcher and teacher. I also worked as associate director of The Fund Raising School at Indiana University. It was during that time that I went back and got my Ph.D. So that’s been the pathway that then led to faculty, running the undergraduate program, and researching African American philanthropy.

Going back a bit. I’m the son, grandson, nephew and cousin of Black Baptist preachers and first ladies. I grew up in a very generous community where people were constantly giving, constantly engaging, but they never thought of themselves as philanthropists. They were just doing what they thought they were supposed to do. So it became a source of frustration for me when I’m working as a fundraiser, or as a researcher, and, regularly, [being] the only African American in the room. I wasn’t seeing serious engagement with African Americans as givers. But they are. To the core. So that’s what’s inspired me to do the work that I do.

In terms of reframing the way we think about Black philanthropy, what sort of avenues have you pursued?

Yes, we need to really reframe it and challenge limited definitions that are really based more on tax policy than in how people practice giving. My work is rooted in history. These tax policies are relatively new—20th century inventions—but people have been giving since the beginning of time. The African American experience provides a very unique window into giving traditions because of the way in which members of that community have constantly given because they had to, and in order to survive and support each other under the conditions of slavery and Jim Crow. We have also pressed for change, from abolition, to the civil rights movement, to today’s movements. That’s been a staple, and giving undergirds all of this. So I’m really wanting to give voice to that, document it, and bring it into these conversations because it’s been neglected for far too long. And yet, it’s just as American as other forms of giving. Philanthropy is something all of us share.

Congratulations on your book. So walk me through everything. When did you start writing it? What were your expectations? And why Madam CJ Walker?

So initially, it started out as a dissertation project. I was wanting to know more about Black philanthropy and how it has developed. Madam Walker emerged as the perfect vehicle for studying that. We tend to focus on the fact that she became this famous millionaire, that she had this world-renowned company, and sort of tack on the charity piece. But I wanted to kind of dig in and say, well, was it just this kind of peripheral thing, or was it really big and important?

What I found is that no, it was an important part of her identity and it was something that meant a lot to her. It grew out of having this same sense of responsibility to the race and to the struggle for freedom. And I was also able to learn about the people who taught her to do it, the other Black women around her and the people in her community who were already doing it when she was coming up. And Madam Walker goes on and amplifies it, and through her own unique contributions, she becomes this memorable figure. But she’s a representation of that great history.

And so the opportunity came to expand that into the book. I’ve been excited by the way it has been received by the field and embraced by so many different places. Even outside the field by everyday readers in churches and book clubs, sororities and giving circles, and foundations. It’s really just been incredible.

So who are some of these other figures around when Walker was coming up, and what did these folks focus on in their philanthropy?

Among the women I point out in my book is Jessie Batts Robinson, who was a member of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Louis. A young Madam Walker (then known by her birth name Sarah Breedlove) arrived in the region to escape the Jim Crow South. So she is received by the Black community there and anchored by St. Paul’s, which still exists to this day, by the way. And Robinson became a dear friend and mentor. Robinson was active in the National Association of Colored Women, the Mite Missionary Society, St. Paul’s charity arm, and was also in a Black fraternal order that practiced charity.

So all these forces played a role in how Madam Walker herself started to think about her responsibility to others as a Black woman, and as a Christian living out her faith. She also interacts with Mary McLeod Bethune, Booker T. Washington, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and a range of educators and activists, who were all kind of leveraging their own sense of philanthropy and their own resources. They built schools for Black people amidst Jim Crow, tried to change public policy, and supported other Black institutions.

Part of what I’m trying to do with this book is reframing all of this under the rubric of philanthropy, because of the voluntary nature of it, and the way it grew out of this culture of giving. Remember—the government, the private markets and the nonprofit sector were all conspiring against Black people. So we had to create our own institutions and try to do for ourselves.

To that point about institutions, as I’m sure you know, even Negro History Week, which became Black History Month, has its roots in philanthropy with historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of African American Life. So why do you think there aren’t more conversations about the important role Black philanthropy has played in sustaining Black institutions through the years?

Yeah, I think there’s been a hesitancy to view and value people of color as givers. Instead, we’ve kind of typecast them as recipients. Because we tell the story from the perspective of the elites. And these elites were indeed giving money to help start HBCUs and to do these kinds of things. But that’s just one part of the story. The community was always giving and engaged, too. We also need to look inside those institutions and the ways in which people raised and pooled resources and gave what they could from the little that they had. For instance, how people were driving each other in lieu of riding buses during the civil rights era. I believe you can cast all of these under the notion of philanthropy.

What about some of these bigger donors today? The Robert F. Smiths and Oprah Winfreys of the world. What is your sense of the state of Black philanthropy today?

So I see these figures as sort of extensions of the history I’ve been talking about. I think it’s a mistake to think of this as new. Robert F. Smith and Oprah Winfrey are Black billionaires doing their thing. But they are coming out of this different tradition. They are not “Black Carnegies.” Smith, for instance, has talked about the role of his mother de ella in shaping his sense of giving and responsibility, and how she regularly gave to the United Negro College Fund every month without fail. She did what she could with what she had, and Smith is building on that. And Oprah has used her businesses de ella as a platform for giving, and has also spoken about the role of her grandmother and others in helping shape this sensibility for her.

This spirit isn’t just active in them. It’s active in the church pews. It’s active in the fraternities and sororities. In giving circles. Think about the explosion of giving circles in America over the past two decades. African Americans have been just as much apart from that as anyone else. Black women in particular are flocking to giving circles in important ways. Which makes sense, because, as I show in my book, Madam Walker was in organizations that had weekly due structures and then used the “pot” to fund social insurance or burial insurance. It’s family friendly. This is what ethnic communities do. They pool their resources together while they are trying to make sense of their experience in a foreign land.

High-net-worth Black Americans are turning to some of the tools of institutional philanthropy. Foundations. Donor-advised funds. Groups like the Cafe Foundation and the 1954 Project are doing great work to lift up Black educators. There’s a lot of energy here. But some of this stuff doesn’t get a lot of coverage. Every day, people are showing up and showing out. Philanthropy is within all of us.

What’s your take on some of this celebrity and athlete giving. Where do you situate people like LeBron and Steph Curry?

Whenever you look at celebrity philanthropy, there’s this notion of, what resources can you give? You can certainly bring your fame. We’ve seen some athletes go out on a limb for issues of racial equity. They get punished for it, and yet still persist. That’s part of this tradition, to keep going in spite of the backlash. And then there’s a lot of other athletes who have lesser-known foundations and initiatives. They are mentoring kids. They are building basketball courts for their neighborhoods. It doesn’t always get the coverage. But it’s happened more often than this coverage would lead us to believe.

Thinking about how the National Museum of African American Culture got off the ground, sure, you have those big donors. But a lot of donors were ordinary people putting in a bit of money. Are there lessons to be had here?

You know, in my book, I write about that and use it as a case study. It’s a great example of Black generosity which has historical roots. What I find particularly interesting is the way in which the Smithsonian was able to tap into this. They had to be intentional in hiring Black fundraisers and developing a different strategy and going to places where the Smithsonian had never been before. They had to keep showing up, to not give up, to deal with initial suspicion in order to build trust. And so this is what I think the rest of the sector is being urged to do, and will be required to do if they are thinking about taking donors of color seriously.

We saw during the pandemic how people have been paying attention to the role of mutual aid. But there’s always been the spirit of neighbor looking after neighbor in African American philanthropy.

What is your biggest hope for Black philanthropy going forward?

oh wow Well, it’s always been here. And it’s still fighting some of the same fights that our ancestors had to start. I hope it gets greater recognition. I hope it gets greater respect. Most importantly, I hope givers today working within this tradition become even more connected to history and realize that they are part of it. This is how we have survived.

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