Bill and Camille Cosby: First Family of Philanthropy; $20 Million Gift to Spelman Is Largest Ever in History of Black Institutions

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$20 million gift to Spelman is largest ever in history of Black institutions

TELEVISION'S No. 1 star Bill Cosby had just split the pages of the history of philanthropy into B.C. (Before Cosby) and A.C. (After Cosby) when he announced that he and his wife Camille were giving $20 million to Spelman College during the inauguration of Dr. Johnnetta Cole as the first Black female president of the 107-year-old Atlanta institution. Cosby said the contribution, the largest personal gift ever to any of America's 112 Black colleges and universities, will be used for the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center and the endowment of three chairs in the fine arts, social sciences and humanities. It will also support a library and archival program of international African women research and resources at the Academic Center.

The applause of the Atlanta audience was still ringing in his ears as he was leaving the campus, Cosby recalls, "when I was approached by an elderly Black man, who, after the announcement was made, came up to me not in anger but he had a question. He asked, `Why did you give all [and all almost lasted a minute] of it to just Spelman?' I looked him in the eye and I said not one word. I just let him think. And after about five seconds, he said, `I understand.'"

What Bill and Camille Cosby really want people to understand is the philosophy that undergirds their philanthropy, which also includes a $1.3 million gift to Fisk University in 1986; another $1.3 million divided equally among four other Black universities--Central State, Howard, Florida A&M and Shaw--in 1987; and $1.5 million divided between Meharry Medical College ($800,000) and Bethune-Cookman College ($750,000) last year.

When Cosby addresses Black educators, graduates and students, he tells them, "Don't be afraid of the word `millions'! Don't be afraid, because the government is talking about billions. And if they're talking about billions, then why, with the large number of people these institutions have graduated, should we cringe when we are told that we have to raise millions?"

"I'm not going to yell at anybody," he continues. "I'm just giving my philosophy that it appears that we have been taking the blues too seriously. We need to call a moratorium on the blues until we get some things in order. About 65 percent of all blues songs start out with the guy saying, `I woke up this morning.' And from that point on, nothing is right the rest of the day. And everybody shakes their head and says, `Yes.'

"The next thing we need to call a moratorium on is, `Well, it's his world; I'm just in it.' Clearly, nothing with initiative is going to happen the rest of the day, or week, or month, or year.

"This $20 million gift to Spelman is many-fold, carrying many, many messages. Mostly, it is a gift to the world. I say that in all seriousness without standing on top of a soap box or anything."

Emphasizing that the Spelman Center will be a place where students can go and find out about their history with pride, Cosby says he and Mrs. Cosby, partner in all of the Cosby enterprises, are pleased over the prospects of the building project.

"Oddly enough it may seem like a loud noise but it only was one pebble being tossed into an empty bucket," the TV megastar says. "Mrs. Cosby and I did not throw down the gauntlet to show off or challenge Black entertainers, athletes, etc.," he emphasized in referring to the family's philanthropy. He says the Cosbys did it "because the children of Black people are at these institutions." He adds: "These children are not strange Martians who come to visit and have to be challenged in terms of, `Well, are you here because of affirmative action and are you here taking up someone else's place?' These kids are here dealing with discrimination and prejudice, of self and joy, of being taught by their professors and the challenge--the acceptance of the challenge--and the commitment. …