Throughout its 100 year history the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) and its related philanthropies demonstrated a continued interest in providing educational opportunities to African-American and other minority students. Preceding the Foundation’s Equal Opportunity Division, support for African-American education can be traced back to the earliest work of the General Education Board (GEB). This continued support allowed the RF to participate in some of the largest transformations in American life throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
Early GEB work was conservative in approach. While the organization supported historically black colleges and universities in the South, funding efforts never attacked the system of educational and social segregation. However, while conservative in policy, the GEB was helping to educate a generation of African-American leaders who later formed the backbone of the civil rights movement and profoundly affected the Foundation’s future actions on issues of race.
When the GEB ceased active work in 1964, its mandate shifted to the Equal Opportunity Division. Launched in 1963, this division attempted to respond to the tumultuous changes in American society being wrought by the civil rights movement. Directed by Leland DeVinney, Equal Opportunity focused on three main areas:
- Training and developing minority leaders
- Strengthening educational institutions for African Americans in the South
- Improving the preparation of African-American college applicants
Notable expenditures included funds to provide scholarships to black students; summer programs at Princeton, Dartmouth and Oberlin to prepare minority high-school students for college and the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship Program to fund graduate students interested in teaching at historically black colleges and universities across the South.
In 1963, a request from the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) immediately raised a crucial and difficult issue for the new Equal Opportunity Division. The UNCF sought $5 million in RF assistance in its $50 million capital campaign to mark the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet at just this time, opportunities were opening for black students at newly desegregated institutions. With limited resources available for work in equal opportunity, the RF needed to decide whether to emphasize support for integrated institutions or to put a large portion of its equal opportunity resources toward the GEB’s work of strengthening the traditionally underfunded historically black institutions.
On the whole, sentiment at the RF ran against support for institutions the staff considered segregated, and the UNCF proposal was initially declined. After further conversations with the UNCF and other education leaders, the Foundation was convinced of the important role that historically black institutions continued to play in higher education in the South, and it reconsidered the application. The final funding recommendation, however, revealed the RF’s ambivalence, since it supported only half of the UNCF request, appropriating $1 million to the capital campaign and a further $1.5 million for the support of selected member colleges.
Throughout the 1960s Equal Opportunity grants attempted to confront the most pressing issues impacting the lives of minorities, including employment and education. Some of the first grants to develop minority leadership in education came as a result of the civil rights movement, specifically the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision that mandated the desegregation of public schools. Many African-American principals and teachers found themselves pushed out of jobs as segregated schools closed or merged.
In one effort to counter this trend the RF inaugurated the Minority Principal Internship Program in 1969.This program was intended to address the lack of minority principals in the nation’s public school systems, especially as the number of minority students increased. The program spoke to growing RF interest in leadership development and in urban issues. The program was inaugurated in Baltimore in 1969 with a $200,000 grant and based on its initial success, the model was replicated in five inner-city school districts over a ten-year period.
From Equal Opportunity to Working Communities
In 1973 the objectives of the Equal Opportunity Division shifted, and the Foundation placed a greater focus on community education, leadership development, equal rights and policy research. In 1999 the Equal Opportunity Division was replaced by the Working Communities Initiative. Like its predecessor, Working Communities also focused on low-income urban communities, with a special focus on issues of employment and education.