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Oprah Winfrey donates $2 million to HBCU Tennessee State and its surrounding community

Donation is among many efforts to offset COVID-19 impact on HBCU students


The Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation announced this week the newest grant recipients of Oprah Winfrey’s now $12 million COVID-19 Relief Fund, which is being doled out to several different organizations in five different cities.

The connective tissue of those cities is that they are all in places that shaped Winfrey — Baltimore; Chicago; Milwaukee; Kosciusko, Mississippi; and Nashville, Tennessee, where she attended Tennessee State University, a historically black college. Those also are cities that have largely African American populations, a community that Winfrey notes has been disproportionately hit by COVID-19.

Of note is Winfrey’s sizable $2 million contribution to the Tennessee State initiative, which services the school and the surrounding community.

Once Winfrey decided she wanted to get involved, she reached out to Tennessee State president Glenda Glover and connected with Bishop Joseph Walker to launch NashvilleNurtures, a collaboration between Mount Zion Baptist Church and Tennessee State, to provide meals to more than 10,000 families in Nashville.

“I see this as an offering. I see this as a part of my tithe, my personal spiritual tithing from the inside out. And serving where I come from. That’s the first thing you do. You take care of home first, take care of your own personal communities,” said Winfrey.

Winfrey’s history with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) dates back more than 30 years ago when she attended Tennessee State on a full scholarship and majored in communications. She fell just one credit short of graduating and instead decided to take her first job co-anchoring a TV show in Baltimore. Though she left Tennessee State in the early 1970s, she returned in 1986 to turn in her final paper to graduate.

Her philanthropy for HBCUs continued when she pledged $12 million to Morehouse College in 1989. Last year, she was surprised to learn it had been 30 years since her initial donation, so she decided to donate another $13 million to Morehouse. That came one week after giving $1 million to the United Negro College Fund.

“This time has shown itself to us so that we can look inside of ourselves and ask ourselves the question, ‘What is the essential work, what is the essential service I need to offer my community?’ ” said Winfrey. “So when I asked that of myself, not just in a graduation speech to kids, how can I better use who I am and what I have to serve in a way that I have not in the past.”

This year, donations to HBCUs are even more critical as schools deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Winfrey isn’t alone in donating to HBCUs during this time, as other celebrities, businesses and foundations have found ways to contribute to a variety of causes.

After the Mellon Foundation donated $100,000 to Hampton University, university president William R. Harvey and wife Norma Harvey announced May 15 they would match the foundation’s amount. The $200,000 total will be used to give every on-campus housing student $100 for traveling expenses. The COVID-19 pandemic forced students to leave their belongings in dormitories. And until Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam lifts the state’s stay-at-home order, students don’t know when they will be able to return.

“It is in these times that it is most important for us all to come together, be supportive of one another and lend a helping hand to those in need,” said William Harvey in a letter to students. “As your President, I and my team are doing all that we can to ensure that Hampton students continue to receive a first-rate education for future employment and/or graduate school.”

Hampton also received $4.2 million in aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Half of those funds will be distributed to students who are Title VI- and Pell Grant-eligible.

Aside from Hampton, nonprofit organization HBCU Heroes and charity Cxmmunity are hoping to raise more than $10 million for HBCUs and underserved minority schools. Because schools have had to transition to online classes, their goal is to provide technology for students who don’t have access to it. Together the two teams formed Tech4COVID, a stream-a-thon series that began May 2.

Investors and partners include Twitch, Intel and JPMorgan Chase.

“It’s no secret that COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting black and brown communities. However, few people are talking about it. That’s why we are,” said Tracy Pennywell, HBCU Heroes co-founder and co-producer of Tech4COVID. “We can’t allow the existing educational divide to skyrocket because of the growing technology gap simply over a lack of computers and Wi-Fi. Students want to learn but can’t if they don’t have technology. Laptops are a way to bridge the gap.”

HBCU student-debt relief is also a goal of recent donations. Taylor Strategy announced May 18 that it would partner with the United Negro College Fund to begin an HBCU 2020 Loan Forgiveness Program. The goal of the campaign is $50,000. Taylor Strategy is making a matching donation up to $20,000.

Taylor Strategy has been investing in HBCUs and their students for more than a decade. In 2006, Tony Signore, CEO of Taylor Strategy, traveled to Howard University, where the students inspired him to begin an internship program exclusive to HBCU students. Taylor pays expenses such as housing, airfare and anything else for the interns. So it’s no surprise Taylor is once again supplying HBCU students with more financial help.

“This pandemic disproportionately affected people of color and HBCU graduates face so many obstacles, we want to put a little fuel in the tank,” said Signore. “The truth is I am looking toward making a much more significant contribution of my time toward supporting HBCU students and UNCF. I want to help put them in a position to succeed.”

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.

Randall is a 2019 Rhoden Fellow and a senior journalism and communications major from outside of Chicago and Columbus, Ohio. He is a former Bloomberg intern and is the sports editor for the Hampton Script. He 100% believes that “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is the greatest cartoon of all time.