Jessie Ball duPont’s life comprises a complicated history, an imperfect legacy, and an opportunity for transformative repair.
Raised and educated in rural Virginia, then working and living in California, Delaware, and Florida, Jessie was steeped in a strong sense of place. As one of the original place-based philanthropists, and a trailblazing female business executive, together with her brother she came to manage the vast business empire of her husband, Alfred I. duPont, as well as their shared philanthropic efforts.
In providing for the Jessie Ball duPont Fund through her Last Will and Testament, Jessie ensured that her assets continued to support the places and institutions she knew and loved. We are guided by Mrs. duPont's intent to strengthen the communities and institutions she cared about–which range from HBCUs to small parishes in the Florida panhandle to large, innovative nonprofits dedicated to serving the most vulnerable.
And Jessie also held beliefs that we cannot stand by, including her explicit and unchanging support of racial segregation. Jessie privately specified that many of her education-focused grants be used solely to benefit students in segregated institutions (at both white and Black institutions). She also ended her financial support of some organizations upon their desegregation.
The Jessie Ball duPont Fund's Board of Trustees and leadership team stands firmly against racial injustice of any type, no matter the historical context. Those beliefs and policies were wrong then, they are wrong now, and we acknowledge that her beliefs and actions did deep, lasting damage.
Our responsibility to repair the damage that Mrs. duPont’s beliefs caused is fundamental. It is our responsibility to make amends through our actions today.
The duPont Fund began making grants in 1977; since then, many of its grants, convenings and research projects sought to support underrepresented populations, and some explored the impact of deeply held beliefs in the South. In many ways, the duPont Fund supported equity-focused projects long before its formal mission statement named equity as a goal.
In 2019, duPont Fund staff initiated a conversation about how Jessie’s legacy cast a long shadow on the Fund’s grantmaking. This conversation quickly grew to encompass the Board of Trustees and outside experts as the team grappled with the need to actively acknowledge the impact of Jessie’s beliefs in the communities she cared about.
The result of these conversations was a joint commitment to placemaking, which is heavily informed by Jessie’s affinity for and loyalty to place, and (formally) to equity, which we have determined needs to infuse everything we do. We are also now firmly committed to continuously acknowledge, reconcile, and repair Jessie’s legacy.
When we acknowledge, we are committed to talking openly and transparently about the harm that Jessie caused by influencing organizations she funded to adopt or maintain segregationist policies, and/or seeking to perpetuate the narrative of the Lost Cause.
When we reconcile, we are committed to meeting, listening, and reconciling with stakeholders and members of the community so that our perspectives and our actions might be shaped and reshaped by their perspectives.
When we repair, we are committed to understanding the harm that was done by Jessie’s philanthropy and assets, and seeking ways to repair that harm.
The last act of repair is akin to, but not a substitute for, the act of redemption. The Jessie Ball duPont Fund bears Jessie’s name–and we return from time to time to the question of whether carrying her name is appropriate in our world today. For now, the answer is yes. And the answer is yes in part because bearing Jessie’s name puts us in the position of acting both to repair the harm that was caused by her actions, and to continue enhancing the good that has come from her commitment to doing good. It is, in a way, how we can fully live into expressing donor intent, knowing how strongly she wanted her name to be identified with the good.
For nearly three decades, Fuqua School, a small independent PK-12 school in Farmville, Virginia, has worked diligently to be a strong community partner while coming to terms with its beginnings. Originally founded as a segregationist (whites only) academy during the period of “massive resistance,” its predecessor, Prince Edward Academy, was established as a response to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling and the subsequent closing of Prince Edward County Public Schools. It was one of the many recipients of funding by Jessie Ball duPont at the time.
Modern-day efforts at Fuqua School supported by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund are designed to build bridges towards a better tomorrow for all. These include providing matching funds for tuition assistance specific to African American students from Prince Edward County to attend Fuqua School, and funding for the creation of a master plan and concept design that would remove one of the last remaining vestiges on campus from the segregationist era and replace it with a landmark for learning that would represent the dawning of a new day for the school and the community.
Four of our higher education grantees, including Sewanee, have been designated as Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Centers by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. They are among the universities at which Mrs. duPont’s advocacy may have complicated integration efforts. We are an active participant the dialogue at Sewanee as we evolve and clarify our own reflections on Jessie's legacy.
Mrs. duPont was among a group of women who preserved and restored Stratford Hall, Robert E. Lee's birthplace, in order to safeguard the veneration of Lee and his legacy. Today, Stratford Hall is working to reflect and repair the legacy of the Lost Cause mythology of the Civil War. We are supporting their stellar work telling the complete history of the property, starting with honoring the First Africans of Stratford Hall, connecting with their direct descendants, strategic planning and new, more accurate branding and messaging.
Part of acknowledging Jessie's beliefs includes beginning to talk more candidly about her legacy publicly.
In 2021, at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations annual conference, Jessie Ball duPont Fund President Mari Kuraishi hosted a conversation with Trustees Elizabeth Kiss, CEO of the Rhodes Trust and Warden of Rhodes House, and Rev. Jennifer Bailey, Founder and Executive Director of the Faith Matters Network and Co-founder of The People's Supper. Mari, Elizabeth and Jen discussed the journeys that the duPont Fund and the Rhodes Trust have taken, and shared lessons learned along the way. They shared this Roadmap for Addressing Organizational Legacy, developed by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, with participants, in hopes that it might be a resource for other organizations on a similar journey.
In spring 2023, duPont Fund President Mari Kuraishi explored Jessie's legacy at a conference of the Episcopal Parish Network with the Very Rev. Katherine Moorehead Carroll, tenth Dean of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Downtown Jacksonville, Florida and the first woman to be called as Dean of a Cathedral in the Southeastern United States. Mari and Katherine discussed Jessie's work as an educator, philanthropist, and businesswoman, the idea of donor intent and Jessie's segregationist beliefs.
In fall 2023, Mari and Dr. Elizabeth Kiss joined Marcus Walton, CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations for a panel discussion on legacy at the Center for Effective Philanthropy annual meeting in Boston. The conversation, "Moving Beyond Acknowledgement: Confronting Legacies of Hurt in Philanthropy" explored the steps beyond acknowledgement to repair the harm and directly address the complicated picture of donor legacy.
In 2023 and beyond, we continue to explore avenues to bring this conversation to new audiences.