'Envisioning Black Colleges'

"A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste." That phrase has for decades been associated with the United Negro College Fund, which supports private black colleges. But the phrase is much more widely known than the history of the UNCF.

July 5, 2007

"A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste." That phrase has for decades been associated with the United Negro College Fund, which supports private black colleges. But the phrase is much more widely known than the history of the UNCF. Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press) looks at the UNCF's history not just in terms of the funds raised for black colleges, but the less than progressive values that motivated some of its most important early white donors, the battle to shape the image of black colleges, the response of black colleges and largely white foundations to Brown v. Board of Education, and of course the famous ad campaign. The author of the book is Marybeth Gasman, an assistant professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, whose scholarship focuses on black philanthropy and black colleges. Gasman responded to questions about her new book.

Q:The early history of the UNCF that you recount is full of incidents of white philanthropic leaders who were condescending (and far worse) to the black educators leading black colleges. Do you view these behaviors as unfortunate but necessary strategy for raising money in those days, or were these strategies just a rationalization for the bigoted attitudes of white leaders?

A: John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the other philanthropists who raised funds for the United Negro College Fund were savvy businessmen and knew what kinds of fund raising pitches would work with their various business acquaintances. If a potential donor was from the South, the philanthropists would emphasize the ways that black colleges would produce hard-working blacks who would not be a “drag or menace” on society. When speaking to a potential donor from the Northeast, the philanthropists would emphasize the direct benefits of educated African Americans to corporations. Were most of these men in favor of social equality for African Americans? No. Rockefeller Jr., in his later years, was perhaps the most willing to interact socially with blacks but he wasn’t willing to speak out publicly about his personal beliefs. Time after time, when given the opportunity, he declined.

Q:Your book notes that the UNCF was constantly focused not just on fund raising, but on the image of black colleges -- especially to wealthy, white donors. What evolutions do you see in the way the UNCF tried to shape black colleges' images and to counter certain images?

A: Early on, in the 1940s, the UNCF, which was for the most part run by whites, presented a conservative image of black colleges. For example, brochures included photographs of clean-cut, happy students who were often performing practical tasks such as driving a tractor, sewing, or cooking; and photographs of loyal, patriotic African Americans in uniform. These photos were used to counter many of the racist myths about blacks – that they were lazy and would easily be swayed by Communist influences, for example. After the fall of legalized segregation in 1954, the UNCF was saddled with a difficult task -- it had to show the philanthropists as well as the nation that its institutions were still viable. As such, it tried to emphasize that black colleges were of sufficient quality as to attract the attention of both white and black students. By the 1970s, the UNCF took a much bolder approach. Instead of presenting black colleges in ways that whites might be comfortable with, it pushed a more African American-centered message and image in front of the American public.

Q:Throughout its history, the UNCF has included some institutions wealthier than others, some institutions that tend to educate better than others., etc. How has the mix of institutions affected the UNCF?

A: Just as there is great diversity among all institutions of higher education, there is much variation among the UNCF member colleges in terms of endowment and selectivity. Frederick D. Patterson’s original idea for the UNCF was that the stronger schools would lift up the weaker ones. The UNCF, while providing a viable support system, has always had high expectations for its member colleges -- for example, they must raise their share of funds to support the group of colleges and they must be accredited. At times there have been tensions between the individual member colleges and the larger fund-raising entity; some institutions decided to leave the UNCF and make it on their own. By and large, most institutions have stayed with the organization, finding the name recognition and strength in numbers beneficial.

Q:How well do you think the UNCF navigated the post-Brown v. Board of Education period, when some questioned the need for black colleges and some black colleges thought that their next logical development was to become completely integrated institutions?

A: At first glance, the UNCF’s strategies after Brown seem to be contradictory. It publicly put forth the idea that its institutions would now, in an integrated society, be open to both blacks and whites. However, privately, the leaders were not convinced that whites would attend black colleges in large numbers nor would historically white colleges be immediately opened to blacks. The UNCF and its black college presidents’ prediction has turned out to be true -- whites have not flocked to black colleges, due in large part to a stigma of inferiority placed on "all black" institutions by systematic racism. And, historically white institutions did not, until the mid-1970s, open their doors to blacks in large numbers.

Q:What do you see as the significance of the "A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste" campaign?

A: The 1970s and 80s “Mind” campaign successfully made the UNCF a household name among average black and white families. It became and still is a familiar slogan, the likes of Nike’s “Just Do It!” or Maxwell House’s “Good to the Last Drop.” More than that, however, with this slogan the UNCF brought the African American mind to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness and asked, “Is anyone’s mind of so little value that we should waste it?” The UNCF, through this campaign, provided the nation with a new image of blackness – an image that was positive and bold – and the nation responded with an outpour of donations to black colleges. The individuals pictured in the “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” ads were successful, career-oriented, and eager to learn. Considering the often derogatory images of African Americans in print ads and on television during the 1970s, the “Mind” ads were quite progressive. Interestingly, the ads were also risky in that they held whites accountable for past atrocities against African Americans during slavery and Jim Crow. Taking on the sordid history of the country while simultaneously asking for money for black colleges was a bold step, and indicative of both the influence of the civil rights movement and the new, more assertive black leadership of the UNCF.

Q:What do you see as the top issues facing the UNCF today?

A: It’s important to keep in mind that my book is a history and really ends in the late 1970s. That said, I do conduct contemporary research on black colleges and I certainly pay attention to the issues that both private and public black colleges encounter today. I think that the top issue facing the UNCF in 2007 is the same as it has been since the fall of legalized segregation in 1954: Why should black colleges continue to exist in an era of professed integration? This is always an odd question in my mind. I think that black colleges offer a wonderful choice to African American students as well as growing numbers of Latinos and whites. For African Americans in particular, they provide an environment free from daily encounters with racism -- this by itself is fundamental to the learning process. Moreover, the United States boasts a variety of colleges and universities with a multitude of missions and special foci -- black colleges represent one of these varieties. They are historic institutions that showcase the rich culture and contributions of African Americans. Still, there are those who continue to question the existence of these institutions – considering them vestiges of segregation, rather than cultural treasures – and the UNCF has to constantly counter this argument. Within this atmosphere that questions black colleges’ need to exist, the UNCF is faced with the task of helping them to increase their endowments, bolster alumni giving, operate on stable financial footing, and maintain strong leadership. All of these elements are essential to successful fund raising and longevity. In this day and age of national and international crises, the UNCF competes with myriad other causes for the attention of the American people. Making sure that African American higher education is front and center has become an increasingly difficult task.

Q:What drew you to the subject of philanthropy and black colleges?

A: In 1994, while in graduate school, I took a class offered by Professor John R. Thelin entitled "Philanthropy and American Higher Education." In this class, Dr. Thelin assigned James D. Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South, the first book I had encountered in my graduate program that pertained to African American education. Anderson’s work opened my eyes to the injustices and inequities in the nation’s educational system. It also made me aware of African Americans’ role in shaping their lives. From this point forward, I decided that my research agenda would be focused on African American higher education -- black colleges in particular – and issues of philanthropy. Using philanthropy (and fund raising) as a lens through which to understand black colleges enables one to see the push and pull in higher education – the issues of control that surface when race and money come into play, the compromises made, and the clever and subversive acts used to gain support for black education. The philanthropic lens has also helped me to uncover the actions of African Americans in creating their own institutions – institutions such as the UNCF. Many of the questions pertaining to philanthropy and black education continue through the current day: Who is financially supporting black colleges and why? Who isn’t? What must black colleges do to gain this support? Do they have to compromise and if so, how? What kinds of strings are attached to donations to black colleges? These are all fascinating questions that I see as central to the study of higher education in general.


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