80 Years Strong: Highlights from UNCF’s History
From UNCF’s inception until today, we’ve acted on the belief that first-generation, low-income African American students deserve and want access to a good education. We’re proud to have helped cultivate some of the country’s most brilliant minds for decades.
In 1943, Frederick D. Patterson wrote his historic letter to The Pittsburgh Courier proposing the creation of an alliance of Black colleges that would raise money for their mutual benefit. UNCF was founded in 1944 on the belief that there is strength in numbers—that HBCUs ought to make a joint effort to appeal for funds—as well as the belief that education was crucial to black mobility. At the start, UNCF served 27 member colleges and
universities, totaling 12,000 students. Its first campaign received the support of many prominent Americans, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller, II. The collective effort raised $765,000, equivalent to $10 million today, which is three times what its member institutions had raised separately the previous year.
John D. Rockefeller, II, was essential to UNCF’s founding in 1944. In fact, UNCF was the first charity to which he gave his public support. He donated $25,000, equivalent to $300,000 today, and wrote letters to other businesspeople and philanthropists to garner support for UNCF. Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman College, won the support of President Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt. During his term, President Truman also supported the fledgling organization.
In 1957, Senator John F. Kennedy donated the proceeds from his Pulitzer Prize to UNCF. Nancy Wilson and Clifton Davis made history in 1974 when they hosted the first UNCF telethon, “Something Special,” and raised $300,000. In 1989, after years of supporting HBCUs, President George H.W. Bush created the Presidential Advisory Board on
HBCUs to advise the president and the U.S. Secretary of Education on best strategies to strengthen HBCUs. In 1991, Bush and 50 governors urged Congress to fund matching grants for students at HBCUs. Bush donated a portion of the proceeds of his autobiography, Looking Foward, to UNCF. And in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, both George H.W. Bush and former president Bill Clinton partnered with UNCF to raise $20 million to support HBCUs damaged by the storm.
Billionaire publisher Walter H. Annenberg pledged a historic $50 million to UNCF in 1990. His gift is the largest single contribution ever given to help support historically Black colleges. In 1999, UNCF was named administrator of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $1.6 billion Gates Millennium Scholars Program.
In 2023, UNCF received its largest philanthropic corporate gift of $190 million from Fidelity Investments to launch the Fidelity Scholars Program.
UNCF has seen remarkable growth since its founding. In 1948, about 15,000 students had graduated from UNCF-member institutions. By 1972, that number was up to 120,000. It was in this year that UNCF coined its iconic “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”® motto, which later became one of the most famous advertising slogans in history. In the ’70s and ’80s, UNCF made an important step by incorporating scholarships into its organizational mission. Prior to this, UNCF exclusively funded institutions.
In 1991, Rep. William H. Gray, III, became UNCF’s eighth president. By 1994, Gray had brought in one-quarter of the nearly $1 billion UNCF had raised since its founding. Also in that year, UNCF-member college enrollment reached an all-time high of 54,000 students, a 28% increase since 1986. The Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute was founded in 1996.
Dr. Michael L. Lomax took his current position as UNCF’s president and CEO in 2004.
Today, as the nation’s largest private scholarship provider to students of color, UNCF awards more than $83 million in scholarships to more than 10,000 students at more than 1,100 colleges and universities each year. In our 80 years, we’ve raised more than $5 billion to help more than half a million students earn college degrees.
Diversity matters and fuels growth, and our institutions and students are key components to national economic growth that enables better futures for all Americans.
Throughout our dynamic history, our core mission and values have remained the same. The “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”® slogan we coined in 1972 has persisted and evolved to include the 2013 addition “…but a wonderful thing to invest in.” This phrase succinctly sums up a practice UNCF has kept up over the years—a practice of investing time, money and influence in HBCUs and the brilliant students who attend them. We can’t do it alone, however. Despite our progress, we can still only help one in 10 students applying for financial assistance. We invite you to to become a UNCF supporter and partake in our decades-long tradition of investing in young minds with great potential to help us all succeed.
Help Us Continue to Make History.