Whether from amassing a large fortune or saving nickels and dimes, African Americans have a tremendous legacy of philanthropy in the United States.
In celebration Black History Month, we honor the selflessness and generosity of a few distinguished citizens. As we move philanthropy into the future, the legacy of people like those included here must be recognized and appreciated.
Oseola McCarty (1908-1999)
Oseola McCarty is perhaps the most famous example of turning frugality into philanthropy. A lifelong washerwoman in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, she received worldwide notoriety in 1995 when it was revealed that she had set up a trust through which a portion of her life savings would be left to The University of Southern Mississippi. The trust was dedicated to helping primarily African American students in need of financial assistance.
McCarty was very frugal, not subscribing to any newspapers or ever owning a car. She received rides from friends to attend Friendship Baptist Church. She planned her savings using dimes—one dime for her church, one dime for relatives, and 60 cents for the University. By the time she died, her endowment to the University was estimated at $150,000.
In the years prior to her death she was awarded an honorary degree from USM, a Presidential Citizens Medal, and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University.
George Ramsey (1889-1963)
The unofficial “Black Mayor of San Diego,” George Ramsey built an empire of business, entertainment, and philanthropy. From humble beginnings — and with time spent as a stowaway and hobo — Ramsey managed bars, hotels, and boarding houses that served a primarily African American clientele.
It was his Douglas Hotel and its Creole Palace nightclub that brought him the most success and led to it being dubbed the “Harlem of the West.” It was frequented by high profile figures like Joe Louis, Louis Artmstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington.
Ramsey’s influence extended beyond entertainment, as he was a 33rd degree Mason and Shriner, a member of the NAACP, president of the San Diego Negro Taxpayer’s League, and raised funds for Bethel Baptist Church.
Biddy Mason (1818-1891)
Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born a slave in Georgia and went on to become one of the first African Americans to purchase land in the city of Los Angeles. She was given as a present to Robert Smith of the Mormon church and taken to California, where she and Smith’s other slaves were eventually freed by a Los Angeles Court.
Working as a nurse and midwife Mason was able to save nearly $300,000, which she used to establish an elementary school for black children and provide food and shelter for the poor. She was a founding member of the city’s first black church, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, and donated land she had purchased where the church was built.
John H. Johnson (1918-2005)
John H. Johnson was the founder of the Johnson Publishing Company, which produced both Ebony and Jet magazines. Born the grandson of slaves, his family relocated to Chicago where they relied on welfare for two years.
While attending the University of Chicago on scholarship, he formulated the idea of a publication for African Americans in the style of Reader’s Digest. A $500 loan from his mother enabled Johnson to start Negro Digest, later renamed Black World. It was his subsequent publications including Ebony and Jet that generated his fortune and prominence.
The traveling fashion show Ebony Fashion Fair has generated over $47 million in donations to charity, and Johnson contributed $4 million to endow a chair in entrepreneurship at Howard University. He was the first African American to be named to the Forbes list of 400 wealthiest Americans.