Pop quiz! What do Beyoncé and John D. Rockefeller have in common?
At first glance, the two American icons couldn’t be more different. Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter (you’ve heard of her, right?) is a paragon of contemporary black excellence. World-famous for her talent and drive, Beyoncé’s life and artistry in 2019 would likely have been unimaginable to Rockefeller.
Not to be confused with Jay-Z’s former record label Roc-A-Fella, John D. Rockefeller was an oil magnate and philanthropist. Born before the Civil War, Rockefeller died in 1937 and is generally considered to have been the richest person of the modern age. So what interests could these two legendary figures, separated by a century, possibly both share?
The answer is surprisingly simple: both are known as strong supporters of historically black colleges and universities, also known as HBCUs. And there are several reasons why these schools continue to be incredible sources of diverse talent in today’s world.
But first, a quick history lesson. In 1882, the founders of what’s now called Spelman College (keep that name in mind) were on a crucial fundraising tour for their school, which was one of the first higher education institutions for black women in the United States. After meeting with them at a church conference, Rockefeller made a relatively small investment: $250. This was just his first donation toward black education; eventually, he would invest millions. Rockefeller soon paid off the debt for the college’s property and made large donations toward the construction of campus buildings. By 1884, the school’s name had been changed to honor Laura Spelman, Rockefeller’s wife, and her abolitionist parents.