Multimillion Dollar Gifts Help Bring Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates to Howard University

Acclaimed journalists Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates are joining the faculty of Howard University, the school announced Tuesday. The announcement comes after the school received a total of $20 million in donations from the MacArthur, Knight and Ford Foundations, and an anonymous donor, to fund the newly created Center for Journalism and Democracy and the positions.

“I am so incredibly honored to be joining one of the most important and storied educational institutions in our country,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement. “I hope that the decision that Ta-Nehisi and I made to bring our talents to an HBCU will lead others to make a similar choice.”

Hannah-Jones will start this summer as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism and will launch the Center for Journalism and Democracy. The Knight Foundation is donating $5 million to endow the chair and fund an annual journalism symposium that will start at Howard and include students and faculty at other HBCUs.

Similarly, the MacArthur and Ford Foundations are each donating $5 million to support the Center for Journalism and Democracy to train aspiring journalists. Up to $1.25 million of the MacArthur Foundation’s gift will go towards funding the next phase of Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project. A spokesperson for the foundation said the details of this phase are still being worked out, but that it will be an educational effort on the issue of reparations for American slavery.

“The goal is to create a media campaign that explores the need for reparations, and how a reparations program would work,” the MacArthur spokesperson told The Plug. “This project will be in partnership with some of the key organizers, thinkers and lawmakers working on the issue.”

In April, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced Hannah-Jones would be joining the faculty as their Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Shortly after the announcement, conservative backlash led the school to not offer her tenure even though it had been approved for every previous Knight Chair at UNC. 

After months of controversy, the Board of Trustees voted last week to approve tenure for Hannah-Jones, but on Tuesday morning she declined their offer and accepted Howard’s tenured position instead.

“I have decided that instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were,” Hannah-Jones said in a separate statement.

Speaking to HBCU Digest, Coates remarked on the controversy, saying “the fact that we were able to make lemonade out of lemons doesn’t change the fact that UNC served up lemons.”

Coates, a Howard alum, is joining the faculty as the Sterling Brown Chair in the Department of English, which was funded by an anonymous $5 million contribution. That contribution also established the Ida B. Wells Endowed Fund to support the Knight Chair.

“I heard a wise man once say, ‘A man who hates home will never be happy.’ And it is in the pursuit of wisdom and happiness that I return to join the esteemed faculty of Howard University,” Coates said in a statement.

This is not the first time these foundations have given money to HBCUs. Since the 1990s, the MacArthur Foundation has given Howard University more than $1 million and has also supported Spelman College, Morehouse College and Hampton University. 

The Ford Foundation has given more than $2.6 million to Howard University in the past 15 years. The Knight Foundation has also previously donated to Howard, giving more than $450,000 to the school. The foundation has also funded a Knight Chair at Florida A&M University.

“I think the position of HBCUs in the world is changing,” Coates told HBCU Digest. “I think young people look at a place like Howard as more of a refuge. So I feel like my job is to help them get the most out of that refuge as they possibly can.”

Mirtha Donastorg

Mirtha Donastorg is a corps member with Report for America and The Plug's HBCU Innovation Editor and Senior Reporter, exploring start-up initiatives and innovations coming from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as the way students are shaping the future of tech. She previously worked as an associate producer and a researcher for CNN.