…A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Univ. Penn professor examines contributions of UNCF
For nearly four decades America’s consciousness has been etched with the phrase “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” a statement made famous the United Negro College Fund. Since its inception in 1944, UNCF has become the nation’s oldest and most successful African-American education assistance organization. University of Pennsylvania professor Marybeth Gasman, details the evolution of the organization in her publication, “Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund” ($45, The Johns Hopkins University Press). This book reveals the multifaceted story of the organization’s efforts on behalf of Black colleges and is told against the backdrop of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement.“My research is about the history of Black colleges and their relationships with white philanthropy,” Dr. Gasman explained during a recent book reading at the University of Pennsylvania Bookstore. “This book is really about the evolving and changing organization that we see as the United Negro College Fund. What (founder) Frederick D. Patterson did is he took his idea for this collective idea to John D. Rockefeller Jr., who was already providing the lion’s share of funding for Black colleges through his father’s Rockefeller sponsored general education board. So the billionaire philanthropist Rockefeller Jr. loved the idea of consolidation.”In its early post-World War II years, the organization was restrained in its critique of segregation and reluctant to lodge a challenge against institutional and cultural racism. “The UNCF that exist today is very different from the one that was created in 1944,” Gasman assessed.

Through cogent analysis of written and oral histories, archival documents, and the group’s outreach and advertising campaigns, Gasman examines the organization’s struggle to create an identity apart from white benefactors and to evolve into a vehicle for Black empowerment.

A significant part of that change came when Vernon Jordan, Esq. took over as UNCF president in 1970. He ushered in the “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” campaign that still draws attention to the significance of historically Black colleges and universities. The Philadelphia region has spawned two UNCF presidents including current president and chief executive officer Michael Lomax and past president the Rev. William H. Gray.

The UNCF reported in 2005 that it supported approximately 65,000 students at over 900 colleges and universities with approximately $113 million in grants and scholarships. About 60 percent of these students are the first in their families to attend college and 62 percent have annual family incomes of less than $25,000. UNCF also administers over 450 named scholarships.


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