The writer is president of the Kate. B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.
“When you know better, you do better.” These sage words from civil rights leader, author and N.C. resident Maya Angelou inform our thinking as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.
As we mark this occasion, the time has come to be open and honest about our founder Kate B. Reynolds’ history and our own, so we can make the necessary corrections to have a greater impact in the future.
In many ways, Mrs. Reynolds was ahead of her time. In 1947, she left instructions in her will for a trust to be founded in her name with an initial focus on improving the quality of life of people with low incomes in Forsyth County and improving healthcare around the state. We could not be doing our essential tasks today — working for thriving residents and communities, equitable access to care, and equitable health and education systems — if not for her foresight and generosity.
It’s important to acknowledge, however, that Mrs. Reynolds was very much of her time as well. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the Confederacy. Her initial bequest of $5 million to found the Trust came from tobacco profits originally earned through the sale and labor of enslaved Black people.
We must acknowledge the role of slavery and tobacco in generating and increasing the Trust’s wealth (now $575 million, of which we give away approximately $20 million each year) and to the evidence of comfort by our founder with racist and inequitable systems that harmed the very people she sought to help.
To repair this history and fulfill our founders’ mission on today’s terms, at our recent 75th anniversary events, we announced that we will divest from tobacco and commit to a socially responsible investment strategy. We know so much more today about the health effects of tobacco that we cannot justify supporting it, given how harmful it is to the health of those we serve.
We thank Wells Fargo, our sole trustee, for aligning investments with our mission and committing $100 million dollars to a socially responsible investment strategy to support economic opportunities in North Carolina.
The issues of tobacco and slavery are personal to Black people like me. I was born in Robeson County, one of the most under-resourced areas in our state. My ancestors were tobacco farmers and I’m descended from people who were enslaved.
The Reynolds’ story is common to many wealthy landowners in North Carolina and around the nation, who built their fortunes off enslaved people. We as a state must reckon with our past and move forward intentionally to right our wrongs.
You may think that we are just talking about the distant past. We are not.
Many of the systems that were formed around the time of Mrs. Reynolds’s death with the express purpose of excluding Black people from sharing equally in the American dream are still doing so today across North Carolina, while ensnaring other marginalized populations in those same inequitable systems.
Despite all the good charitable work the Trust has accomplished by making grants, we know now that we must change the racist systems that hold people back if we are to achieve our mission.
In alliance with community and foundation partners, we are working for change in numerous ways, such as:
▪ Making healthcare accessible to every N.C. resident by expanding Medicaid
▪ Increasing access to universal pre-K in Forsyth County so every child will thrive in school
▪ Ensuring access to prenatal healthcare for Black mothers
We need your help.
We implore our philanthropic colleagues, local businesses, and local governments to join us as we look critically at ourselves and ask what we can do together to heal the wrongs of the past. Let’s create a future where everyone enjoys the unalienable rights our founders desired for our blessed nation.
Together, let’s work for a just society that stands up against racism and changes the system to ensure equitable health, educational, and economic outcomes for every person in North Carolina.
We can do better. We can do more. We must.
Dr. Laura Gerald lives in Winston-Salem and Chapel Hill.