Last month, it was reported that Blue Meridian Partners, a nonprofit funded by Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation, donated $124 million to the HBCU Transformation Project, which was designed to improve enrollment and graduation rates at historically Black colleges and universities.
Ironically, on the heels of this generous act of philanthropy came a report from the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Education indicating that 16 states, including Virginia, have underfunded some HBCUs for decades, resulting in a $13 billion shortage. Virginia’s shortage came to a whopping $278 million.
The report also revealed that “public HBCUs have 54% less in assets per student than public non-HBCUs, while private HBCUs have 79% less than private non-HBCUs.” So, the burning question that HBCU administrators and students are asking is, “How do HBCUs get back the much-needed funds?”
Since 1989, nine HBCUs have closed their doors. Saint Paul’s College, a private HBCU in Lawrenceville, was established in 1888. It struggled with financial difficulties, causing it to lose its accreditation in 2012 and close in 2013 after 125 years. Could more funding have prevented the closure?
News of the report prompted former Gov. Douglas Wilder, who was the nation’s first Black governor, to weigh in. In an editorial for the Richmond Times Dispatch, he called for Gov. Glenn Youngkin to remedy the shortage. “This is not a Black or partisan issue, but it is critical to address and to make retroactive investments for past shortcomings,” he said.
The sum of $278 million is a ton of money. It raises a myriad of questions. How were the funds spent? Were any funds redirected to finance economic growth and development projects at predominantly white colleges and universities?
That may sound speculative and far-fetched, but consider that in May 2022, a civil lawsuit was filed by the Mississippi Department of Human Services to recover $77 million in welfare funds that had been misspent. Records show that NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre pushed state officials to fund a volleyball facility at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, which allegedly resulted in the university’s athletic foundation receiving $5 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. TANF programs are earmarked for assisting at-risk families who need food, childcare, job preparation and work assistance.
Like HBCUs, Black-owned businesses and nonprofits have been historically underfunded. What can be done locally to ensure that these organizations are getting a fair share of the philanthropy pie?
Begin by identifying organizations that are making a difference in the community and support them. The Village Initiative for Equity in Education and the NAACP Education Committee were instrumental in bringing the injustices of non-transportation zones to the attention of the Williamsburg-James City County public school system’s senior leadership. This resulted in restoring school bus transportation for elementary students from low-income communities.
Next, identify ways that your organization can financially support Black-led organizations. Last January, Sentara Health sponsored the Greater Williamsburg National Day of Racial Healing organized by Coming to the Table-Historic Triangle. This celebration attracted about 100 people and created a spirit of community and collaboration that resonated long after the event. Sentara Health is also joining the Williamsburg Community Foundation in sponsoring our Community Day event today. This demonstrates both groups’ commitment to philanthropy and partnerships with Black-led organizations.
Keep in mind that philanthropy can involve more than writing a check. Some Black-owned businesses need mentors, and help with fiscal management, establishing endowments and securing meeting spaces. Recently Williamsburg Christian Church announced that it is allowing Faith Walkers to use its building for its community programs. Faith Walkers is a nonprofit that helps people who have been recently released from prison make a smooth transition back into the community.
When we come together to build a more equitable and prosperous community, we all win.
Laura D. Hill is the founder and director of Coming to the Table-Historic Triangle, a program of the Virginia Racial Healing Institute. Learn more about her work at Comingtothetable-historic triangle.org.