Billionaire financier David Rubenstein has become an ambassador for championing the importance of preserving the African-American experience and introducing it to a global audience for generations to come.
His recent purchases of an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which formally abolished slavery, reflect his belief that black-American history is the most emblematic manifestation of the American dream. As Rubenstein explains it, "African-American history is American history."
Publicly, Rubenstein is known as the co-founder of the Washington-based Carlyle Group, one of the world's largest and most diversified private-equity firms, with approximately $153 billion in assets under management. Forbes put his personal net worth at $2.7 billion in 2011. Privately, he is a history enthusiast who in 2010 joined Warren Buffett in vowing to donate at least half of his wealth during his lifetime.
Rubenstein's affinity for historical documents isn't about serving his personal interest, he says. He believes in public access to historical documents and also loaned his copy of the 1297 Magna Carta to the National Archives and the Lincoln-signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation to President Barack Obama's Oval Office.
Rubenstein has also endowed Duke University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which preserves the stories of African-American troops during the Civil War and documents the last few years of slavery and the first years after emancipation.
The copy of the 13th Amendment that he purchased is now on display at the New-York Historical Society and has garnered the interest of public school students of all races. It inspires a historical interest in the foundations of our democracy, viewed through the lens of the African-American experience.
It may be surprising that such important documents were available for private ownership. When I learned of their purchase, I was all the more intrigued that they had not landed in the hands of a sufficiently wealthy African American.
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.
The Root: What drew you to the 13th Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation, and what do they mean to you?
David Rubenstein: These represent critical milestones in our growth and maturation as a nation, and too few people have actually read these documents, let alone taken the time to understand their enormous historical significance.
TR: In your recent interview with Fareed Zakaria, you said that Americans don't know enough about our history. What should we know more about, and why?
DR: I am trying to make a difference in my own small way by making history as accessible as possible. That's true with these documents as well as others, such as the copies of Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence I have loaned to the National Archives and the State Department to be displayed.
TR: Given their special historical significance to African Americans, will you ever consider making special plans for their display that would target the black community?
DR: Yes. I expect the permanent home of the 13th Amendment will be in a museum that will appeal to African Americans and all people interested in the history of civil rights in our country.
TR: Why should documents like these — truly national treasures — ever be in private hands?
DR: I don't have a strong view either way, but they do have to be paid for somehow, and I happened to be able to buy them and make them publicly available. I am also a big supporter and regent of the Smithsonian Institution, where I am on the board, and other essentially public entities such as the Kennedy Center.
TR: Where will the two documents be headed to next? Do you ever plan to display them internationally — as a way of sharing the history of American civil rights and democracy with the world?
DR: My goal is to make them relevant today. To that end, I am considering ways that will enhance their connection to anyone — everywhere — who might be interested in seeing and reading them.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.