The Importance Of Giving Black
Successful trial lawyer and philanthropist Willie Gary discusses the growing need for alumni giving at HBCUs
By Ronald RoachLegendary trial attorney Willie E. Gary stands tall in the American legal community for his skill at winning verdicts in personal injury cases. Over the years, his success in the courtroom yielded multimillion-dollar awards for his clients and has made him a wealthy man. Not one to forget the people and the institutions who have helped him along the way, Gary became one of the single largest benefactors of a historically Black college and university in 1991 when he pledged $10 million to Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. The gift is being disbursed over a 10-year period.Crediting Shaw as the institution that gave him a chance when none other would, Gary joined the list of prominent Blacks among America’s most generous higher education philanthropists. That select group includes such luminaries as Bill and Camille Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and entrepreneurs Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher and the late Reginald Lewis. “[Gary] has a great legal mind,” civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. once told The Orlando Sentinel. “But what really impresses me about him is that he hasn’t caught amnesia, like a lot of people in his position. He remembers where he came from, and he has reinvested in those roots.” Gary has continued his involvement in higher education, continuing to donate money and serving as a trustee to several institutions. In addition to chairing the board of trustees at Shaw University, he serves on the boards of North Carolina Central University, Bethune-Cookman College, and Edward Waters College.Gary says he believes Black philanthropy entered a new era during the late 1980s and 1990s because of the gifts made by prominent Blacks to higher education institutions. Public attention and admiration directed at HBCUs reached unprecedented heights after the Cosbys pledged a $20 million gift to Spelman College in 1988. Oprah Winfrey donated $1 million in 1989, and gave another million in 1997 to Morehouse. Winfrey’s multimillion-dollar gift to Morehouse College also accorded recognition for the role of Black colleges and universities in American society. The renaissance HBCUs experienced during the 1990s, especially with the surge of applications and interest from top-ranked Black high school students, is related to the heightened visibility and popularity these schools have attracted, Gary says.“But for HBCUs, most of us who are the graduates would not be where we are today,” he says.Gary’s gift to Shaw made a key difference in turning around a university that had fallen on hard times. Like a number of other small Black private colleges and universities, the mid- to late-1980s, brought declining enrollment and looming financial insolvency to Shaw. Gary’s involvement and pledge greatly boosted a $25 million fundraising campaign the school launched. The start of that capital campaign coincided with the announcement of Gary’s pledge.“[The pledge] came at a time when the school was in great need,” says Shaw University president Dr. Talbert Shaw, who is in his 12th year as president. “It encouraged would-be donors to look at Shaw. It was a tremendous gesture of confidence.”Shaw’s capital campaign period ended in 1996, according to Helga Greenfield, director of development at Shaw University. She says total donations and pledges reached approximately $25 million. Dr. Shaw explained that prospective corporate and foundation donors traditionally want to evaluate the level of commitment alumni demonstrate to their alma maters before electing to commit funds to an institution. The Gary pledge and his subsequent donations helped bring on board several first-time donors, including the Bush and Hearst foundations, Shaw says. “Success breeds success,” he adds. Gary’s ongoing donations have helped fund the renovation of a science building and the construction of a student center, which now bears his name, according to Shaw officials.George Jackson, founder and director of the National Conference on Black Philanthropy, says individuals, such as the Cosbys and Winfrey, did help boost public awareness of Black colleges with their multi-million dollar pledges. That attention, however, was generated because the Cosbys and Winfrey are celebrities. “While Gary has been extremely generous, he did not get the same coverage as [the Cosbys and Winfrey],” Jackson says.While Jackson says he’s not sure whether the large donations to selected institutions helped improve overall gift giving to HBCUs by Blacks, he adds that the institutional priorities for Blacks have not shifted over the past two decades. The Black church remains the institution that attracts the bulk of charitable giving within the Black community, according to Jackson. “My guess is that giving to HBCUs runs second to supporting the church,” Jackson says. From Rags to Riches, Thanks to ShawGary was born the sixth of 11 children to his farmer parents in Eastman, Ga., in 1947. He spent his early years growing up in migrant farming communities. The family, which had lost a farm due to hospital expenses incurred during Gary’s birth, lived as poor migrant farm workers in Florida and Georgia.After graduating from high school, Gary went to Bethune-Cookman College on a football scholarship. He was cut from the football team, however, and later joined the Shaw University squad. He succeeded there and has felt an undying gratitude to the small Black institution ever since.“I feel blessed that Shaw gave me a chance,” he says.Gary graduated from Shaw in 1971, and later earned a juris doctorate from the law school at North Carolina Central University in Durham. He eventually relocated to his native Florida, where he opened a law firm in 1975 in the town of Stuart. Within five years, Gary’s gift for trial lawyering made him a wealthy man. His law firm has won landmark cases and multimillion-judgments.In 1995, Gary led his law firm to a courtroom victory that garnered a $500 million judgment on behalf of a Mississippi funeral home company. The funeral home business had won judgment against the Loewen Group, a Canadian funeral home conglomerate that had engaged in unscrupulous business tactics against the Mississippi firm. The case, which was settled for $175 million, made Gary a national figure and elevated him to the top tier of American trial lawyers. Gary would later become part of a team of lawyers that successfully sued the tobacco companies in Mississippi.Gary, who is currently launching a gospel music cable television network, has invested much of his winnings into other businesses in Florida. In addition to the HBCU circles, he has become one of the most recognized philanthropists in Florida. “I realized the importance of giving back,” he says. “I’d still be in the sugar cane fields of Florida if others hadn’t given me the opportunity to prove myself.”
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