Letters from Leadership

A.L. Lewis Fund Brings to Light the Tradition of Black Philanthropy

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Wanda Willis is the Vice President of Civic Leadership at The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, the oldest and largest community foundation in the state, working to stimulate philanthropy to build a better community. She is a founding member of the A.L. Lewis Black Opportunity & Impact Fund, which is housed at The Community Foundation. She wrote the following guest column in the Florida Times-Union for Black History Month.

Abraham Lincoln (A.L.) Lewis was Florida’s first Black millionaire, a businessman who founded American Beach in Amelia Island as a haven for “recreation and relaxation without humiliation” for Black people living in the Jim Crow South.

He was also a philanthropist.

Lewis was the co-founder of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, generously giving to Mt. Olive A.M.E. Church on Franklin Street in East Jacksonville and to Black colleges, including Edward Waters University and Bethune-Cookman. He secured the land for Old Stanton and the Masonic Temple, developed three Black cemeteries in Northwest Jacksonville, and founded Lincoln Golf and Country Club.

Our community is richer today because Lewis gave back. As we celebrate Black History Month, his story illustrates the power of Black giving.

Last year, 22 community stewards founded a new collective giving initiative at The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, naming it the A.L. Lewis Black Opportunity & Impact Fund to honor his legacy. The Fund will make grants to improve the quality of life in the Black community in three areas: education, economic development, and healthcare.

A.L. Lewis Fund Founding Members

But another aim is to change the way we think about philanthropy – to make sure everyone is included, not just those with material wealth. At The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, we believe that everyone has gifts, and everyone can be a philanthropist, donating their time, talent, treasure, and testimony to the cause of building a better community.

The A.L. Lewis Fund brings to light the untold story of Black philanthropy, which has existed for generations and traces its roots back to the African continent. It comes in many forms – for example, how my grandmother always made sure we put something in the collection plate at church.

In the 1800s, Black philanthropy manifested through cooperatives, saving clubs, and giving circles. Black giving is based on deeply held values of collective responsibility for one’s family and community. According to a 2012 study by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, two-thirds of Black households engage in charitable giving that totals roughly $11 billion a year.

Even those with little material wealth have built networks of support through important institutions such as churches, historically Black colleges and universities, and Black fraternities and sororities. As a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, I participate in a national fundraiser for college scholarships, and last year we raised over $1 million in a single day.

In fact, many people involved in this work might not describe it as “philanthropy” because they’re not looking for recognition; it’s simply a tradition going back generations.

But since the original meaning of philanthropy is “love of mankind,” it’s clear how all these acts of generosity do, in fact, meet the definition. I hope that the A.L. Lewis Fund elevates and celebrates the tradition of Black philanthropy – and creates a new vehicle for giving that is open to all who wish to make a difference.

As Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, A.L. Lewis’s great-granddaughter, often reminds us, quoting an African proverb, “When spiderwebs unite, they can tie up a lion.”

This article was originally published in the Florida Times-Union

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