Why Don’t Famous HBCU Alumni Send Their Children To Their Alma Maters?

Philanthropy is typically classified as the giving money without any expectation of involvement by the giver. Investment in a university, on the other hand, usually involves a gift presented with the expectation of a return on that investment, which doesn’t always have to be financial.

I believe there’s a third layer of university giving that is rarely practiced at HBCUs, and that is the concept of legacy investing. This is donating money to align yourself with a particular university, to create an environment where your success is synonymous with this university.

John F. Kennedy graduated from Harvard University with an undergraduate degree. Since his death the Kennedy’s and Harvard University have become synonymous; a large family investment established the John F. Kennedy School of Government and many family members, including JFK’s daughter Caroline, since have attended Harvard University.

Money and attendance reinforce the connection between the Kennedy and Harvard brands, and it is an example of how investing forward can benefit generations of descendants more than a university itself.

Where is that example with HBCUs?

Earl Graves and Reginald F. Lewis are HBCU alumni giants and arguably two of the most independent Black business success stories of the twentieth century. Both men were graduates of public, state-funded HBCUs; Morgan State University and Virginia State University, respectively. Both men pledged and donated millions to their alma maters since their matriculation, and the schools of business are named after them (1995 for Graves at Morgan and 2010 for Lewis at Virginia State).

But one piece of that honorable equation is missing; the legacy of attendance at said alma mater for any of their direct descendents.

Lewis also donated the largest gift at the time to Harvard University of $3 million dollars which established The Reginald Lewis Fellowship for Law Teaching at Harvard Law School. Both of his children attended chose Harvard over Virginia State for their degrees. Ther choices removed any possibility of legacy building at VSU.

Despite the lack of press behind Graves donations, his family’s legacy of education is far more accessible. His three sons all attended Ivy League schools for their undergraduate and postgraduate degrees; and of the four of his eight grandchildren who could be researched, one has attended an Ivy and the others have attended PWIs.

Of the seven direct descendent that can easily be verified, none have even attended an HBCU, let alone Morgan. This is despite the the fact that all of the four grandchildren that I could verify entered college after the business school was named in his honor. During this time as well, Graves served on the board of trustees at Howard University, a school considered the preeminent HBCU in America.

Some could argue that these disconnections between distinguished alumni and their family ties to these schools are directly reflective of their financial investments. The rough total that’s been noted by various publications to have been donated by Lewis to Virginia State is around $1.5 million dollars compared to roughly $4.5 million total donated to Harvard University. It is worth mentioning that Harvard posts the largest university endowment in the world at $37 billion dollars, compared to Virginia State at $47 million dollars; less than one percent of Harvard’s endowment figure.

Virginia State could do substantially more with Lewis’ donation to Harvard; the richest school in the world, but it shows the stark difference in the legacy of his investment into Harvard University versus his philanthropic view of Virginia State.

Graves donations to Morgan or otherwise aren’t as published and widely known. But it can easily be inferred they’re quite substantial due to the naming of the business school in his honor.

These two legacies (or lack thereof) raise some interesting questions about HBCUs, philanthropy, and perception in education. We’re all taught that a degree from a more prestigious university holds more weight in the workplace than a degree from one with less prominence. We fail to realize it is the success of alumni which builds that prominence; that fuels the university cycle of investment.

Maybe this is why none (that we could verify) of Graves or Lewis’ descendants decided to attend their HBCU alma maters. Maybe the wealth they acquired provided opportunities to attend more prominent schools, and they have. So does that mean HBCUs were only good enough for their fathers because of limited choices, and completely off the radar for the children and grandchildren afforded more options by time, tolerance and a lineage of wealth?

If the descendants of Graves and Lewis chose to attend their alma maters it would have little to no effect on their academic or economic well being; but it would been a significant cultural multiplier for these respective schools. These two men are simply an example of what happens to every HBCU. Students come in from lower economic means, excel and change their lives for the better. These students even give back to the university in a philanthropic sense, but so few set the precedent of their children attending that same school, let alone another HBCU.

A gift transforms into an investment when accompanied by lineage. When your children attend, it says of a donation “I want this university to succeed to not only benefit other students, but my family name and the lives of my children.” This is a huge section of giving missing from HBCUs from their elite alumni donors. It’s like giving to a panhandler in comparison to buying a share of a corporation. That gift to the panhandler has no long-term impact and establishes no connection. Purchasing a share of a company establishes a connection that can be passed down for generations of investment into the same company.

Graves and Lewis’ philanthropic donations to their alma maters are significant donations that should be applauded, but their lack of investments in the universities are glaring. The narrative for HBCUs among its’ elite alumni cannot be that they’re good enough for a handout, but not for their descendants to attend coupled with the large investment. For state-funded HBCUs which compete against discriminatory state boards of education in terms of funding, this is particularly damaging.

For some, this argument will be viewed more from the prism of class, which is accurate to a point, because the decision of their descendants to attend Ivies is mostly about assimilation into circles of wealth. But by not attending HBCUs, they sever a connection with the community which honors them and wholeheartedly supports their family legacies.

An example of this is with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Morehouse College. I would argue Reginald Lewis and Earl Graves aren’t synonymous with their alma maters as King is with Morehouse, not because of a lack of giving but a lack of lineage. Both of MLK’s sons attended Morehouse as their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did. MLK’s descendants are living testimonies to his investment in Morehouse College that transcends anything a mere financial gift could have accomplished.

Graves and Lewis made it and gave back to their HBCUs. But many other graduates who’ve thrived because of our beloved institutions have left them behind physically and financially. Across the nation, PWIs are making a bigger push than ever for middle class and affluent black students, every year challenging HBCU market share.

They are glaring examples in the HBCU world of a person from a majority black area who makes enough to move to a majority white area and goes back to offer support, but would never let their child grow up in that same neighborhood. Our schools do not need more donations to support fixer-upper projects; they need invested families willing to put down roots in the homes where greatness was first reared.

Orze Killgo is a graduate of Morgan State University’s Earl G. Graves School of Business and Management. He lives in Houston, TX and works as a revenue management professional for a large multi-national firm.