Simmons College of Kentucky Board of Trustees Chairman Barney Barnett recently announced plans to donate $4 million to the institution in support of capital improvements and building Simmons’ endowment.
The announcement comes less than a year after Barnett stunned 23 graduating seniors from the college, giving each of them $1,000 gifts during their commencement ceremony.
Barnett is a noted philanthropist in Kentucky, just like many of the other donors who contribute to historically black colleges and universities nationwide with ties forged through board participation or corporate partnership.
But he is also part of a growing club of white philanthropists investing in HBCUs with transformative gifts, a club with a number of members that is outpacing the publicized total of black millionaire donors to the sector.
In the last three months, Simmons, Bennett College, Spelman College, and Morehouse College have tallied just over $43 million in donations for reasons covering the two most magnetic reasons to give to an HBCU; to support HBCU excellence or to avoid HBCU extinction.
Spelman accounts for the lion’s share of the total, having received a $30 million gift from board member Ronda Stryker in December, and Morehouse adding $1.5 million to the total last month with a gift from noted black philanthropist Robert F. Smith.
Bennett raised an improbable $8.2 million in less than two months, with $1 million of what officials hope will be a school-saving total given by entrepreneur Kwanza Jones.
It is common in higher education for donors to wish to be anonymous with their giving, or for schools not to draw much attention to their kindness. But secret support, at least in recent months, doesn’t seem to be on the list of demands for white supporters within the HBCU sector.
This is not a black wealth shaming session; telling people of any race how to spend their money is a surefire way to all but guarantee that they won’t spend it on you or your cause. We know who the wealthy black elite are, and they know that we know. We love their flirtations with our culture.
But big gifts to HBCUs seemingly coming from an increasing number of white donors is a telling sign of just how broken the philanthropic narrative may be in the HBCU sector.
It isn’t that we are not giving to our HBCUs; last May, Howard University alumni Irvin and Pamela Reid donated $1 million to their alma mater.
But if the last three months are any reasonable sample size of HBCU giving, the variety of storylines attracting gifts from a variety of power donors underscores the impression that our black elite earners do not give back frequently enough or publicly enough to suggest that the richest among us genuinely care about our schools.
The idea that wealthy black donors are not targeting HBCUs for giving seems to run countercultural to new narratives on HBCU philanthropy, which according to federal data increased by more than $60 million between 2014 and 2016.
The narratives may be confusing, but the numbers on who is making gifts of generational consequence to HBCUs do not lie. In many ways, they make sense. Some HBCUs were started by wealthy white philanthropists, and funded by the same over years in the name of equalizing society in the harsh aftermath of slavery.
If this mentality has shifted over generations from equalizing citizenship to helping America keep pace in science and technology, or fixing its broken secondary education system, or eradicating poverty through the mission of HBCUs, our sector fully embraces it. We welcome the jumpstart for families and institutions to do more with more instead of less for a change; just as many other colleges and universities were able to do with far more sorrowful revenue streams.
But there’s no need to ask questions to which we already know the answers. Why aren’t black millionaires giving to our schools in greater number? What are white donors hearing and believing about the HBCU narrative that black millionaires and billionaires aren’t hearing or believing?