The Mogul Who Buys Black-History Treasures

David Rubenstein tells The Root why he purchased two renowned documents steeped in black history.

David Rubenstein (Remy Steinegger/World Economic Forum); 13th Amendment

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A common complaint among black people is that the well-heeled among us aren’t sufficiently philanthropic or interested in preserving our culture and history, but my research for this piece has uncovered myriad examples contradicting that claim. Educational philanthropy provides the most striking examples.

Bill and Camille Cosby’s seminal gift of $20 million to Spelman College more than a decade ago remains one of the largest ever given to a historically black college. There’s financier Alphonse Fletcher’s 2004 endowment of $50 million for scholarships that advance the ideals of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. (The Root’s editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., belongs to the committee that helps steer investment choices.)

But there’s a new frontier opening for African-American philanthropy as more within the community gain the wealth to make sizable donations: the creation of libraries and museums that collect, preserve and disseminate records of the black experience in America, along with the stories of the greater Diaspora.

Art collectors Brenda and Larry Thompson recently gave more than 100 works to the Georgia Museum of Art, estimated to be worth at least $1.5 million. Then there’s Filipino-born Loida Nicolas-Lewis’ pledge to honor her late husband, African-American financial mogul Reginald Lewis, with $5 million for the Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, which was renamed the Reginald F. Lewis Museum.

And there are the many individuals who have helped fund efforts such as the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Ohio and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (the latter of which is slated to have its own building on the National Mall by 2015).

The next step could be for wealthy black individuals to acquire the rare relics of our history, as Rubenstein has done. His example can serve as a challenge to invest not just in uplifting the black community but also in preserving and sharing black history.

His commitment reflects the oft-quoted phrase “To whom much is given, much is required.” There is also a more significant narrative at play that he recently discussed in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria — namely, that Americans don’t know enough about their own history.

The Root communicated by email with Rubenstein to explore his interest in African-American history and why he believes that it can be used to educate and inspire.