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Black Philanthropy: Still working to uplift the underprivileged

“To whom much is given, much is required,” is a life principle Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, Mattie and Michael McFadden-Lawson and Leon Garr take to heart.

Bernard and Shirley Kinsey
“Too many of us have done well and not done enough to share,” Bernard Kinsey said. “Not just share a check, but share contacts with Black businesses and organizations, share networks so others can break through.”

“There is an ‘I made it and you’ve got to make it on your own’ attitude.”

As a leader in the Xerox Corp., Kinsey helped form the company’s Black Employees Association, which increased African American hiring from 121 employees in 1971 to more than 14,000 in 1991. Later, as COO and co-chair of Rebuild Los Angeles, Kinsey was responsible for generating more than $380 million in investments to help re-energize the inner city following the 1992 riots.

“If you are the only Black person in the boardroom, you must bring an original point of view,” Kinsey added. “Otherwise, why do they need you? If the only reason you’re there is to bring diversity, you lose influence and you are going to be compromised.”

“Our responsibilities are to help the Black community create jobs and wealth,” he said. “That’s why we’re in those jobs.”

During their 44-year marriage, Bernard and Shirley Kinsey have raised more than $11 million for their alma mater, Florida A&M University, and $7 million for the United Way. They were one of the early supporters of the NAACP Image Awards and the Real Men Cook prostate cancer fundraising events. But they are most regarded for their extensive art collection.

The traveling exhibit “Shared Treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey–Where Art and History Intersect,” originated at the California African American Museum (CAAM) and features an eclectic mix of aged and yellowing slave-owner documents; modern, colorful oils on canvas; and triumphant sculptures depicting Black life. A mini-exhibit will be featured at an 8 p.m. event this Saturday at the Ebony Repertory Theatre.

“The full exhibition is now at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History through May first,” Kinsey said of the more than 100 artifacts organized by the Bernard and Shirley Kinsey Foundation for the Arts and Education. “If your readers are planning a trip to D.C., they should visit.”

The Kinseys will give a verbal and visual presentation to kick off the Ebony Repertory Theatre’s Black History Month celebration.

“We are excited to be able to share with our audience the personal treasures of Bernard and Shirley Kinsey,” said Wren T. Brown, founder/producer of the theater. “But we are more excited to be aligned with the living treasures that are Bernard and Shirley Kinsey.”

Although the couple has received numerous accolades for their philanthropy, Kinsey is quick to remind that the struggle is not over.

“Our community needs a lot of help,” Kinsey said. “When you think about all the wealth in this town… those with resources and contacts should share with others.”

“I don’t think our community is getting our fair share from corporations,” he added. “Some do great work–Southern California Edison, Toyota–but what about the other thousands of businesses?”

Studies show nearly 75 percent of charitable gifts in the U.S. come from individual benefactors, not businesses. African American philanthropy dates back to Harriet Tubman, when abolitionists were funded by private dollars. Since then, Black churches, schools and universities, the civil rights movement, all were supported by private, community funding.

African Americans, in fact, give more than any other group, donating 25 percent more of their discretionary income to charities than Whites, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Today’s list of philanthropists includes such well-known names as Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Chaka Khan and Tiger Woods. But you don’t have to be rich to make charitable donations.

“Just pick an area and get started,” said philanthropist Mattie McFadden-Lawson, who began her giving when a friend called asking her to support a local organization. “I just started seeing the basic needs in our community.”

Mattie McFadden-Lawson
Mattie McFadden-Lawson was honored with a Drum Major Award at last month’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference/LA Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration. She is a graduate of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of government and obtained a degree in public administration, working on Capitol Hill before moving to Los Angeles and founding the MML Design Group.

One of McFadden-Lawson’s charities is “Save Africa’s Children Foundation,” founded by West Angeles Church of God in Christ’s Bishop Charles E. Blake.

“But you don’t have to leave the country to effect change,” she said.

“Some of us take it for granted that everybody’s doing well,” McFadden-Lawson added. “But when I heard that 72 percent of babies are born into households without fathers, it sent chills down my back.”

She is an adamant supporter of the Music Center, the Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County, giving children from underprivileged homes opportunities to experience culture and Morehouse College, from which her oldest son is an alumnus and her youngest son is a sophomore.

“Morehouse is the only place in the world that does what it does,” McFadden-Lawson said. “They are grooming young Black men to be leaders and they pass that energy on at all levels of academics.”

In addition to children’s charities and Morehouse, Mcfadden-Lawson and her husband, Michael, are involved in local, state and national politics. They were one of the first funders of Barack Obama when he ran for U.S. Senator in 2004.

“We introduced him to L.A.,” McFadden-Lawson said. “Then on his National Finance Committee, we helped raise money for his presidential bid.”

Next, she would like to give more support to women’s issues and foster care children. McFadden-Lawson encourages everyone to reach out.

“God has placed us in a position to give back to someone else,” she said. “We can make a huge difference across the world with all of its issues.”

Leon Garr
Another business icon, Leon Garr, is set to celebrate his 97th birthday this spring. The Leon & Mattie Garr Foundation stands on Garr’s belief in circulating economic resources in the community where he lives and does business.

He’s always had a head for money management, having bought a car with his brother in 1925, at the height of the Great Depression, “while everyone else was looking to get something to eat,” Garr said.

Being raised on a big farm, the family had all the groceries they needed. One drawback in rural Louisiana, however, was schooling. Garr remembers completing the third grade, but because of a childhood illness, he couldn’t walk the distance to the “colored” school, which was open only three months of the year.

“See, I didn’t have an education,” he said. “So I’ve tried to help educate all I could.”
Garr worked in construction and helped build the first brick dormitory on the campus of Grambling University. After moving to L.A. in the early 1940s, Garr started working, first with a construction company, then as a longshoreman.

“I did a little bit of everything ’till I got to know people,” he said. “After the war was over, they went to building and I got a job with a contractor.”

Garr co-founded Coast Construction Company with Nathan Hill, and they were partners until 1963. After Hill’s death, he launched Garr Construction.

“We added rooms onto houses, until we got large enough and strong enough to build whole houses,” Garr said. After building homes in Baldwin Hills, Brentwood, West LA and Willowbrook, the company went on to construct buildings on the campus of Costa Mesa Community College.

His business empire includes real estate holdings; educational facilities (Leon Garr Learning Institute); a car repair shop; and Founders National Bank. The Leon and Mattie Garr Foundation gives tuition scholarships to students attending Grambling University and other institutions of higher learning.

He lives by two mottos: “It’s better to make money than to take it,” and “ain’t nothing yours until it’s paid for.”

He paid $125 for a lot and built the first of many homes and commercial buildings at the age of 17 and believes he has found a way to live a meaningful and productive life.

His other clarion call is the main title of his new book–“Let’s Go to Work!: A 96-Year-Old’s Remarkable Journey from Builder to Banker.”

In its second printing, copies of the book will be sold at Garr facilities throughout the city. Garr says it contains the secrets to making and keeping money through hard work, ownership, accumulation and making friends.

Since purchasing Founders Savings & Loan and converting it to Founders National Bank, the only Black-owned commercial bank west of the Mississippi River, Garr has made loans to people who are getting started in their own businesses, even when they don’t have much collateral and other banks have turned them down.

“I just like to help different people,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get the colored people to work together, but that is hard.”