United Negro College Fund Essay

The United Negro College Fund is the nation’s largest and oldest fund-raising organization for African American education. It provides operating funds and scholarships for 39 historically Black colleges and universities. This entry looks at its history and contributions.

When Frederick D. Patterson became president of Tuskegee Institute in 1935, he quickly realized that his institution—and Black colleges in general—were in the midst of a fund-raising crisis. He found it difficult to run Tuskegee in an efficient manner while meeting the needs of poor students. Moreover, Patterson observed that he and all of the other Black college presidents were competing for the same dwindling pool of funds from foundations. In 1943, in response to this critical situation, Patterson crafted the idea of a united appeal for private Black colleges. He sought to push giving in a new direction by reaching out to the average citizen rather than focusing exclusively on a small number of wealthy donors.

On April 25, 1944, he established the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) with twenty-seven member colleges and a combined enrollment of 14,000 students. Initially, the UNCF was merely a new face on twentieth century industrial philanthropy. Philanthropists such as Julius Rosenwald and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. provided seed money for the organization, and in fact, Rockefeller, Jr. initially maintained a tight grip on its everyday activities. During the mid-1940s, the UNCF publicly acted and represented itself in a conservative manner, portraying Black college students as loyal, hardworking citizens—an image that Rockefeller, Jr. could use to bring in large sums of philanthropic support.

With the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, the UNCF changed its public image. In light of the Court’s pronouncement that segregated environments were inferior, the UNCF faced the dilemma of how to represent its all-Black campuses without seeming to be against integration. At this time, the UNCF’s African American leadership focused on the benefits of attending Black colleges, as well as the possibility of integration.

By the mid-1960s, several philanthropic organizations, including Ford and Carnegie, began to question whether Black colleges should exist at all. Some of the reports issued by foundations contained blistering attacks, creating the need for a robust defense by the UNCF. Gradually, the UNCF began to embrace a new Black-centered image and to become more activist in the public stances it took. Spurred by a growing Black middle class, the 1970s brought about more change and a greater national presence for the UNCF. It was at this time that the UNCF coined the phrase “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste”—a slogan that invoked a sense of compassion and obligation in many Americans who might not have given previously to Black education.

No longer relying primarily on money from large philanthropies, the UNCF began to draw from a broader donor pool throughout the country. The 1980s and 1990s were a time of growth for the UNCF. New leadership shaped the organization into an efficient entity and designed more effective fundraising strategies that helped raise $1.6 billion for the member colleges. Perhaps the UNCF’s greatest accomplishment was securing a $1 billion gift from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 1999. Through this gift, the UNCF is able to offer scholarships to students in a fashion unparalleled by any other organization.

Bibliography:

  1. Gasman, M. (2007). Envisioning Black colleges: A history of the United Negro College Fund. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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