OP-ED: Robert F. Smith, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Frank Baker and William Pickard Top List of Black Donors to HBCUs

By Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., President and CEO, National Newspaper Publishers Association

Billionaire philanthropist and novelist MacKenzie Scott’s $560 million donation last year to 23 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) made headlines across the country at a time when racial equity has become front-page news. However, for decades Black leaders in business, entertainment, education, and other fields have been the main sources of philanthropic donations to HBCUs.

A recent Washington Post story found that Black Americans donate a higher share of their wealth than their white counterparts – to the tune of around $11 billion each year. Given their cultural and educational importance to the Black community, HBCUs are the repository of much of these donations with a number of household names – and some you may not know – making big-dollar contributions to these institutions.

Here are some of the most prominent Black philanthropists to donate to HBCUS:

Robert F. Smith – Chairman & CEO, Vista Equity Partners 

Smith, the billionaire investor behind the software private equity firm Vista Equity Partners, drew widespread praise in May 2019 when he announced that he and his family would pay off the entire student loan debt of the 2019 Morehouse College graduating class of 396 students. Along with paying off the student debt, Smith’s $35 million donation also helped establish the Student Success Program to reduce or eliminate debt for all Morehouse grads. The private equity guru also gave the school an additional $1.5 million to create the Robert Frederick Smith Scholars Program and build a park on campus.

As board chair of the Student Freedom Initiative – a plan to provide STEM students at HBCUs with a family-centric, income-contingent payment alternative to high-cost, fixed-payment debt – Smith pledged $50 million. Smith’s donation jumpstarted the initiative, which hopes to raise $500 million for the effort and began operations in the fall of 2021 at eleven HBCUs.

“Each year, thousands of Black graduates from HBCUs across America enter the workforce with a crushing debt burden that stunts future decisions and prevents opportunities and choices,” Smith said. “The initiative is purposefully built to redress historic economic and social inequities and to offer a sustainable, scalable platform to invest in the education of future Black leaders.”

Oprah Winfrey, Television Personality, Philanthropist, Author, Entrepreneur & Actress

Most people may know the philanthropic acts of Oprah – who, like Beyoncé, Prince, and Zendaya needs no further introduction – through the infamous “You get a Car!” episode of her talk show, but she is also quietly, one of the biggest donors to HBCUs in the country.

In 2019, Oprah donated $13 million to Morehouse College to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Oprah Winfrey Scholars Program at the HBCU. Overall, Oprah has donated at least $25 million to the Atlanta school. “I felt that the very first time I came here,” Oprah said. “The money was an offering to support that in these young men. I understand that African American men are an endangered species. They are so misunderstood. They are so marginalized.”

Besides her gift to Morehouse, Oprah also donated $1.5 million to the United Negro College Fund to help pay for scholarships for Black students and general scholarship funds for 37 private HBCUs.

Frank Baker – Founder and Managing Partner of Siris Capital

Baker, the founder of private equity firm Siris, along with his wife, interior designer Laura Day Baker, donated $1 million in May 2020 to establish a scholarship fund at Atlanta’s Spelman College, the oldest private historically Black liberal arts college for women.

Initially, the scholarship paid off the existing spring tuition balances of nearly 50 members of Spelman’s 2020 graduating class and the remaining funds are meant to ensure that future high achieving graduating seniors have the financial resources to graduate.

“We are all aware of the headwinds that people of color — especially women — face in our country, the challenges of which are made even more apparent by the economic and health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the couple said in a press release. “We believe it is critical that talented women finish college and confidently enter – free of undue financial stress – the initial stage of their professional careers.

William F. Pickard – Businessman, Co-owner of Real Times Media 

Detroit businessman and philanthropist Pickard has a long history of donating to HBCUs across the country. Most recently Pickard and his cousin, Cincinnati businessman Judson W. Pickard Jr., donated $2 million to Morehouse College to create the Pickard Scholars Program. This program will recruit and support Black students from metro Detroit, Flint, greater Cincinnati, and LaGrange, Georgia to attend the Atlanta HBCU.

“People have uplifted and helped me grow and I believe in blessing others,” Pickard, whose children attended Morehouse, told the Atlanta Tribune. “Our gifts are given to where we are from and those who have invested in us and who we are.”

The Pickard Family Foundation also donated $100,000 to the National Black MBA Association to create the William F. Pickard Business Scholarship Fund. The fund is open to qualified business student members at several HBCUs who need help financing their education.

Michael Jordan – Former NBA Superstar 

Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time and is almost single-handedly responsible for transforming the game into the global phenomenon it is today. So, if anybody knows how to make an impact on HBCUs, it would be His Airness.

The six-time NBA champion and five-time league MVP, along with Nike’s Jordan Brand, donated $1 million last year to Morehouse College to boost the school’s journalism and sports-related studies program. The donation is meant to bolster a program launched thanks to the donation of another icon, director Spike Lee.

“Education is crucial for understanding the Black experience today,” Jordan said in a press release. “We want to help people understand the truth of our past and help tell the stories that will shape our future.”

The donation to Morehouse is part of a pledge made by Jordan and his brand in 2020 to donate $100 million over the next ten years to combat racism across the country.


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