Carrie Lapsky Davis’s Million-Dollar Gift to Tougaloo College

    Carrie Lapsky Davis never forgot her student days at Tougaloo College. Her time at the small but celebrated Mississippi HBCU was a passport to a new world for “this little country girl” who grew up an hour or so away in one-stoplight Port Gibson, raised by her grandmother.

    Arriving with “big dreams, but no one to really help me to implement them,” she was “mentored and nourished” at Tougaloo, laying the foundation for careers in education and business and an ongoing involvement in community activism. “It was more than a place, a learning institution for me,” she says of the school. “It was like a family.”

    Davis recently expressed her enduring gratitude for that formative experience by making a $1 million donation to her alma mater in memory of her grandmother, Carrie Ellen Rice. Her name will be enshrined in the school’s new girls’ dormitory, the Carrie Ellen Rice Residence Hall.

    Though she had only a limited education, Davis’ grandmother knew the importance of schooling. She made a living selling milk, butter, eggs and chickens (“We would get up in the mornings and go to the barn to milk the cows”) and saved $700 in an old coffee can that she gave Davis to go to school. Davis had earned a full ride to Alcorn College, but her grandmother insisted Tougaloo was the better route.

     “She thought that Tougaloo was the best school in the country and that I should be at the best. She thought it was just such a special school and I would get a better education there,” says Davis. “She was willing to give everything that she had for me.”

    Founded in 1869 and currently ranked 36th in U.S. News & World Report’s list of HBCUs, Tougaloo College (“Where History Meets the Future”) has a rich history of influence and impact. The school’s alums include NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson, Mississippi congressman Bennie Thompson, astrophysicist Hakeem Muata Oluseyi and actress Aunjanue L. Ellis-Taylor. Past students continue to make an impact across Mississippi, accounting for many of the health professionals and educators and 44% of African American lawyers and 34% of African American physicians in the state.

    The school played a significant role in the civil rights struggle: the “Tougaloo Nine” was a group of students arrested in 1961 after staging a “read-in” at the local public library to protest being barred from using it.


    With a “heart as big as the sky,” Grandma Rice “knew nothing but how to give,” remembers Davis. “She helped everybody… [If] she could find some clothes to bring home for us that somebody had given her and we couldn’t use, she’d give them to somebody else.”

    At Tougaloo, Davis didn’t only gain an education, she was inspired to seek social change through meeting civil rights movement leaders there. Among them were Ralph Bunche, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. (“When he came into the chapel at Tougaloo, I actually thought God had walked in; his presence was so powerful”). It was “a life-changing opportunity.”

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    Attending an HBCU gave Davis the opportunity to succeed that she might not have found elsewhere. Never having taken a foreign language, her French and German classes were overwhelming to start with, but Tougaloo offered remedial help. “It was like something that I’d never experienced before,” she says of the support. “And all of the professors in the community were just so engulfing and trying to do all they could to help.”

    After graduation, Davis married and later settled in Chicago, where she worked and raised a family. Then she began to feel like “I had to do something before I left this earth,” she says. “I noticed all around me, a lot of the people that I was close with were passing on, and I said, ‘It’s time that I do this.’” Having “always worked hard and been very conscious about investing and saving,” she was able to give generously.

    Davis worked her way through school so her grandmother never needed to send more money. “When I got babysitting jobs, I would put a dollar in the envelope and send it to her,” she says. “If I made $5, I would send her one or two dollars.”

    I just wanted to do [for someone else] what my grandmother did for me.

    The 1964 graduate wants her gift to provide an opportunity for someone like her, “some kid that I’ll probably never know to have the same experience that I had… They’ll be able to get up and go and have some kind of future.” She stipulated in the scholarship and the endowment she established that it only be used for kids with a B average and whose parents are financially challenged “because oftentimes, it’s the lower-middle-class kids who just don’t have these opportunities.”

    Noting the low incomes of many households in Mississippi, Davis is mindful that “a lot of those kids from poor families are very talented, but they don’t have a support system to help them go to college. I just wanted to do [for someone else] what my grandmother did for me. The $700 that she sacrificed at the beginning of my education at Tougaloo was a life-changer for me. I wanted this $1 million donation to be a life-changer for some kid who has a talent but doesn’t have the finances to attend college.”

    I know that when we give, others will give.

    ‘Enough to share

    Davis hopes that her example will also inspire others—“that they will look at what they have and go deep into their souls and their hearts and shake out those mattresses and look around with their bank accounts and say, ‘Look, how much do I need to be happy? I have enough to share.’”

    Smaller HBCUs like Tougaloo especially need the help, she believes. And she thinks there are more people out there who are in a position to help out. “Once I got out of college and I looked at the number of graduates who were giving, I just thought we could do much better,” she says. “I know that when we give, others will give.”

    Sizeable alum gifts like hers are important for a couple of reasons, Davis says. They can inspire others to make similar donations, which is important because “we have to take care of our own,” she believes. “I had two classmates call me, and they said, ‘Girl, I am so proud of you [for your gift]. I’m going to give something to Tougaloo.’ It just made me almost tearful because I think it’s going to really make a great effect.”

    Additionally, alums giving can unlock matching grants from other sources, Davis notes. “When we go to big corporations or big organizations and ask for help, the first thing they do is they ask, ‘What are your graduates doing? Let me see who’s giving to the school.’ So, I’ve always known, early on, that it’s really important to do that.”

    Davis’ donation isn’t the first time the school has made news for a generous gift. In 2020, Tougaloo received a $6 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. It was the single largest gift from an individual donor in the school’s history.

    The Davis family’s example of supporting education continues. Her sons, Stephen (an investment banker) and Christopher (a Wall Street trader), and their wives created the Carrie and James Davis Scholarship at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Named after the men’s parents, the endowed fund supports Carleton students of color in financial need.

    How can parents foster a philanthropic concern in their children? “I tell everybody—and my grandmother always taught me this—if you’re blessed to have made a good living, you have to give back because without giving, you can’t receive,” Davis says. “It’s just important for us as Black people, or maybe any nationality, to look back, to reach back and try to help somebody—to try to do for somebody what someone did for you.”

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