African Americans and Philanthropy

Lithograph of Bishop Richard Allen, 1847 and Portrait of Madam C. J. Walker, taken in 1915
Businesswoman Madam C. J. Walker (1867–1919) (pictured above right) supported African American educational and social service institutions, along with anti-lynching efforts and more. In the face of white racism and Jim Crow-era discrimination, her giving asserted and advanced African Americans’ equality.
In 1787, Richard Allen (pictured on the top left) founded a mutual aid organization in Philadelphia known as the Free African Society with other African American men including a formerly enslaved man named Cyrus Bustill who was a baker and an abolitionist. Decades later Cyrus Bustill’s grandson David Bustill Bowser and his wife Elizabeth Harriet Stevens Gray Bowser were active in philanthropy and civil rights activism. They ran a business in Philadelphia making fire hats, such as the one below, and other ceremonial items for volunteer fire companies.


Fire hat made by David Bustill Bowser, mid-1800s
Fire hat made by David Bustill Bowser, mid-1800s
Gift of CIGNA Museum and Art Collection

African Americans have been active in organized philanthropy from the earliest years of the United States. These resources tell stories of how African Americans in different eras have supported their communities and challenged racism and discrimination through their giving.

Discover more of the stories of the Bowsers, Madam C. J. Walker, and other African American philanthropists with these resources.

What is Philanthropy?

What is Philanthropy?

How black Philadelphians fought for soldiers during World War I

An illustration of an African American soldier

How do the arts promote social change?

A yellowed page with black text announcing the "Grand Concert in aid of the Russian Jewish Refugees"

Madam C. J. Walker’s philanthropy

Portrait of Madam C. J. Walker, taken in 1915

Making money and doing good: The story of an African American power couple from the 1800s

An image of a violet fraternal collar--opulently decorated with golden embroidery and a hand painted eye

Elizabeth Keckley: Businesswoman and philanthropist

 Printed portrait of Elizabeth Keckley included in her autobiography "Behind the Scenes"