The historic firsts for Black folks just keep pouring in.
This time it manifested itself in the form of one of the foremost organizations providing financial aid and broad support for Black college students announcing the recent election of its first-ever African American chairman of the board.
The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) elected Milton C. Jones to Chair of the UNCF Board of Directors last week and made the formal announcement Tuesday with an official press release that lauded the Atlanta businessman and civic leader “becoming the first African American to hold that position.”
It added: “Jones will work to grow the UNCF endowment, benefiting the 37 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) belonging to the UNCF network of member institutions.”
The announcement may have caught some people off-guard who assumed UNCF already had a Black chair of its board.
But Jones succeeded William F. Stasior, Sr., who was chairman of the UNCF board for 11 years. The press release also listed the people who held that position before him, including John D. Rockefeller III and businessmen Michael H. Jordan and Jack Stahl — all white men.
Considering the history behind the renowned philanthropic organization founded nearly 77 years old — its primary objective is and always has been to eliminate socio-economic barriers that stand in the way of pursuing higher learning by raising money to pay for Black students’ college educations and fund historically Black colleges (HBCUs) — conventional wisdom might suggest that its board was not just always chaired by a Black person but also comprised of mostly Black people.
However, a quick glance back in history — and on UNCF’s website — shows that’s far from true and provides some precious context that may be missing from the collective consciousness when thinking about UNCF’s leadership. It also underscores what an important and historic milestone Jones’ election is for the organization.
Founded April 25, 1944, by Frederick D. Patterson — a Black man who would go on to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor — UNCF’s early support from financier and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller was regarded as “essential.” Mary McLeod Bethune helped get then-President Franklin D. and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to support its efforts, as well, ultimately leading to more help from other white leaders including President Harry Truman and then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, which helped attract more philanthropists to finance UNCF. It was seemingly inevitable for its board of directors to be led by white men.
In fact, white people have played steady roles throughout UNCF’s history, something that the organization has never tried to hide. It’s just that the announcement about Jones’ election has drawn attention to that truth which is perhaps not widely known.
According to its website, UNCF has 18 directors on its board, including Jones. About half of them appear to be non-Black. But the “UNCF Institutional Directors” — presidents of HBCUs that are UNCF members — are all Black. Further, the UNCF Leadership team, led by President and CEO Dr. Michael Lomax, is about 99% Black.
UNCF described its board on its website: “The men and women who guide the actions of the organization are a diverse group of people, and with their help, the organization ensures as many students as possible make it to and through college successfully.”
A request sent to UNCF for comment was not immediately returned, but Lomax raved about Jones in a statement included with the press release.
“All of us at UNCF are excited to have Milton become our new Board Chair,” Lomax said. “Milton brings a wealth of business knowledge and a thoughtful and collaborative leadership approach that will help us thrive and continue to drive UNCF’s and our HBUCs’ impact and growth.”
Jones, a businessman who previously served as Vice Chair of the UNCF Board and Chair of its Finance Committee, has been on the board since 2005 and vowed to build on the organization’s legacy.
“Since 1944, UNCF has played an integral role in changing the life trajectory for each student it has served, and l look forward to continuing that legacy,” Jones said in a brief statement. “Our member institutions and students remain the focus of our collective efforts. As we progress each year, we will grow our organization by building upon the strong foundation laid at UNCF’s inception and strengthened throughout its history.”