In 1911, a total of 19 grants were made. Appropriation No. 19, a gift of $500, went to a fledgling organization just a few months older than the foundation itself, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
With early and continual foundation support, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights group, has since played a pivotal role in dismantling racial barriers in the U.S., including overturning Jim Crow laws and bringing the 1954 case that led to desegregating schools, Brown v. Board of Education, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Other groups working in race relations were also among early grant recipients. In 1912, the National League on Urban Conditions among Negroes (which would later shorten its name to the National Urban League) received the first of many New York Foundation grants.
Over the years, substantial funds were committed to educational programs designed to compensate for the severe disadvantages of black students. The foundation awarded grants to a number of historically black universities, the United Negro College Fund, and the National Scholarship Service and Fund for Negro Students.
The foundation helped to challenge racial inequality across the city, particularly in Harlem, where two-thirds of black Manhattanites lived by 1914.
And when tempers flared, the foundation responded. On August 1, 1943, Harlem boiled over, according to Walter White, head of the NAACP, himself a resident of Harlem’s Sugar Hill section. A police officer arrested a woman for disturbing the peace. When a black soldier tried to intervene, a scuffle ensued, and the policeman shot the soldier in the arm as he fled. A crowd gathered to accompany the soldier to a nearby hospital, and tensions mounted. Then someone shouted that a white cop had shot and killed a black soldier. The rumor ignited a riot largely focused on property. Rioters set fires, broke windows, turned over cars, and looted stores.
After years of underlying frustration with the social order, Harlem residents were seething with anger. As Harlemite James Baldwin, who witnessed the riot, described the situation, by the summer of ’43, “Harlem needed something to smash.”
Two days later, six African Americans were dead. Hundreds were arrested (according to some reports, upwards of 1,000 were arrested) and 40 policemen were injured. Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia acted swiftly, appealing for calm over the radio and even sending food to Harlem.
With funds provided mainly by the foundation, Mayor LaGuardia’s Committee on Unity studied and dealt with this explosive situation, engaging a full-time staff. The purpose of the committee – which held no enforcement powers but which relied solely on the persuasive powers of its members – was “to make New York City a place where people of all races and religions may work and live side by side in harmony and have mutual respect for each other, and where democracy is a living reality.”
The committee tried to “prevent little fires from becoming big ones” by taking emergency action. It also attempted to make long-term progress by investigating specific areas of racial stress. Among the committee’s many projects was an investigation of a 1948 boycott of white merchants on 125th Street conducted by Harlem residents who believed the merchants were overcharging them for food. The committee negotiated a settlement, easing tensions. In addition, the committee studied inequality in higher education, submitting a report that prompted a national drive to abolish quotas based on race or nationality in admissions to colleges and medical schools, which were used then to bar minorities.
The committee’s work even had a major impact on America’s favorite pastime and most popular sport, baseball. The sports world in general had a well-established “color line” barring blacks from participating in mainstream professional clubs. But the executive director of the Committee on Unity – a New York University professor of sociology named Dan W. Dodson – worked behind the scenes with Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, on plans to break baseball’s color barrier by hiring Jackie Robinson in 1946. Dodson then convinced other clubs to follow the Dodger’s lead, desegregating baseball diamonds and other sports arenas and changing professional sports forever.
By the end of its 40th anniversary year in 1949, the foundation had made an unequivocal commitment to the struggle for equality and justice, a commitment that would grow and strengthen. As the nation plunged into the civil rights era, and as New York followed the lead of civil rights organizations elsewhere, the foundation targeted efforts in the South for funding. Trustees believed that efforts there ultimately would have an enormous impact on the lives of black New Yorkers.
By the late 1960s, race and poverty formed an underlying theme for half of the foundation’s appropriations, from grants to study lead poisoning among children in the South Bronx to workers’ cooperatives across the South. The trustees also granted power to Dr. Kenneth B. Clark to award up to $10,000 to support educational and training programs for poor black youth in Washington, D.C.
In 1967, D. John Heyman, then president, led foundation efforts to support groups that fought discrimination anywhere in the nation, and particularly in the South. The New York Foundation was among the first of few groups willing to make grants to programs in the South during the early years of the civil rights movement.
In the foundation’s earliest days, most low-income people served by its grantees were immigrants. This reflected the demographics of the time. As the foundation’s commitment to racial justice grew and the poverty profile of the city changed, grants followed the growing needs of low-income African Americans. The demography of New York continues to evolve, and today the foundation has formed partnerships with other marginalized communities while maintaining a core commitment to racial justice.