The architect of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), William Trent Jr. guided the trailblazing group during the turbulent Civil Rights years. As the first executive director from the organization’s start in 1944 until 1964, Trent raised $78 million for historically black colleges so they could become “strong citadels of learning, carriers of the American dream, seedbeds of social evolution and revolution.”
Born in 1910 in Asheville, NC, and raised in Atlanta, Trent was the son of an early organizer of the NAACP and president of Livingstone College, a historically black college in Salisbury, NC, where the younger Trent earned his bachelor’s degree. He was one of the first black MBA students at Wharton, where he studied insurance under Solomon Huebner. Graduating in 1932 in the midst of the Depression, he later described his possibilities of securing employment in American industry as “virtually nil.” He devoted himself to making opportunities for others.
He joined Livingstone College as a professor of economics, and then served as professor and dean of education at Bennett College in Greensboro, NC. In 1938, he became adviser of Negro Affairs to the Public Works Administration and a race relations officer with the Federal Works Agency under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In 1944 Trent joined with Tuskegee Institute President Frederick D. Patterson and Mary McLeod Bethune to found the UNCF, a nonprofit that united college presidents to raise money collectively through an “appeal to the national conscience.” Trent was an obvious choice for the executive director’s position, where he became a leading advocate of desegregation. In 1956 Trent announced that all of the fund’s colleges were open to qualified applicants of any race to serve as “islands of democratic participation, both white and Negro citizens can come together in full, frank discussion.”
Trent drew the support of business tycoons and even U.S. presidents, including Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy Jr., who as a senator donated the profits from his book Profiles in Courage to the UNCF, and George H.W. Bush, who Trent recruited as Yale’s UNCF campus coordinator when the future president was just an undergraduate. Trent died in 1993.