Moved by the nationwide protests against racial inequity last summer, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis wanted to find ways to address the issue in its community and help lift the Tennessee city’s most disadvantaged residents. So the nonprofit created an unrestricted $40 million endowment for LeMoyne-Owen College — the most significant gift the tiny private institution had ever received. For LeMoyne-Owen, a historically Black college, the facility was “transformational,” said its president, Vernell Bennett-Fairs.
LeMoyne-Owen leaders are still figuring out how exactly they will use the money. But the gift dwarfed what had been its $12 million endowments, and it will allow leaders to expand programming and degree offerings, recruit new students, hire new faculty, offer more scholarships, grow its honors program and make needed infrastructure improvements, Bennett-Fairs said. “It speaks to the value and importance of LeMoyne-Owen College to this community,” Bennett-Fairs said. “It will impact the campus for years to come on so many different levels.”
The gift is one of many massive financial investments made to historically underfunded HBCUs by billionaire investors, nonprofits, and the federal government over the past year. The donations were given as the nation turned its attention to racial injustices. The pandemic put small colleges in financial peril. HBCU graduate Kamala Harris was nominated and elected as vice president.
Each significant investment can have a cascading effect, inspiring other philanthropists to do the same, said Rodriguez Murray, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs at UNCF. The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis created the $40 million endowments for LeMoyne-Owen, for example, because that was the amount Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and philanthropist Patty Quillin gave to UNCF and HBCUs Spelman and Morehouse last June, the organization’s president, Robert Fockler, said.
The Memphis foundation hoped the amount would allow the college to grow and develop instead of worrying about survival and serving what it considers “the most critical population in our community,” Fockler said.
HBCUs are major economic drivers and have proven crucial to closing the racial wealth gap, financially propelling low-income Americans, and sparking social change. But a long history of systemic racism has blocked access to the money needed to keep up financially with institutions that serve primarily white students. The lack of public support and the institutional wealth gap has existed since the emergence of HBCUs in the wake of the Civil War, through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow-era segregation of schools, and the decades after.
The donations, Murray said, “certainly help” in closing the institutional wealth gap, though it’s too early to tell if they will help HBCUs level up financially. More investment is needed, he added, and not just at notable HBCUs like Spelman and Morehouse, but also at lesser-known institutions such as Tougaloo College, in Mississippi and Talladega College, in Alabama. HBCUs have “turned out some of the greatest minds and change agents that this country has ever seen,” Murray said. “But with significant resources on par with what they produce for the country, the institutions would turn out even more.”