John Davison Rockefeller Sr. (July 8, 1839 – May 23, 1937) was an American oil industry business magnate and philanthropist. Widely considered the wealthiest American of all time and the richest person in modern history, Rockefeller was born into a large family in upstate New York and was shaped by his con man father and religious mother. His family moved several times before eventually settling in Cleveland, Ohio.
Rockefeller became an assistant bookkeeper at the age of 16, and went into a business partnership with Maurice B. Clark and his brothers at 20. After buying them out, he and his brother William founded Rockefeller & Andrews with Samuel Andrews. Instead of drilling for oil, he concentrated on refining. In 1867, Henry Flagler entered the partnership. The Rockefeller, Andrews & Flagler company grew by incorporating local refineries. Rockefeller formally founded the Standard Oil Company, Inc. in 1870 as an Ohio partnership with his brother, Henry Flagler, Jabez A. Bostwick, Samuel Andrews and a silent partner, Stephen V. Harkness. He ran it until 1897.
As kerosene and gasoline grew in importance, Rockefeller’s wealth soared and he became the richest person in the country, controlling 90% of all oil in the United States at his peak.[c] Oil was used throughout the country as a light source until the introduction of electricity and as a fuel after the invention of the automobile. Furthermore, Rockefeller gained enormous influence over the railroad industry, which transported his oil around the country. Standard Oil was the first great business trust in the United States. Rockefeller revolutionized the petroleum industry, and along with other key contemporary industrialists such as steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, defined the structure of modern philanthropy.
Rockefeller’s charitable giving began with his first job as a clerk at age 16, when he gave six percent of his earnings to charity, as recorded in his personal ledger. By the time he was twenty, his charity exceeded ten percent of his income. Much of his giving was church-related. His church was later affiliated with the Northern Baptist Convention, which formed from American Baptists in the North with ties to their historic missions to establish schools and colleges for freedmen in the South after the American Civil War. Rockefeller attended Baptist churches every Sunday; when traveling he would often attend services at African-American Baptist congregations, leaving a substantial donation. As Rockefeller’s wealth grew, so did his giving, primarily to educational and public health causes, but also for basic science and the arts. He was advised primarily by Frederick Taylor Gates after 1891, and, after 1897, also by his son.
Rockefeller believed in the Efficiency Movement, arguing that: “To help an inefficient, ill-located, unnecessary school is a waste … it is highly probable that enough money has been squandered on unwise educational projects to have built up a national system of higher education adequate to our needs, if the money had been properly directed to that end.”
Rockefeller and his advisers invented the conditional grant, which required the recipient to “root the institution in the affections of as many people as possible who, as contributors, become personally concerned, and thereafter may be counted on to give to the institution their watchful interest and cooperation”.
In 1884, Rockefeller provided major funding for Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary in Atlanta for African-American women, which became Spelman College. His wife Laura Spelman Rockefeller, was dedicated to civil rights and equality for women. John and Laura donated money and supported the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary whose mission was in line with their faith based beliefs. Today known as Spelman College, an all women Historical Black College or University <HBCU> in Atlanta, GA., named after Laura’s family. The Spelman Family, Rockefeller’s in-laws, along with John Rockefeller were ardent abolitionists before the Civil War and were dedicated to supporting the Underground Railroad. John Rockefeller was impressed by the vision of the school and removed the debt from the school. The oldest existing building on Spelman’s campus, Rockefeller Hall, is named after him. Rockefeller also gave considerable donations to Denison University and other Baptist colleges.
Rockefeller gave $80 million to the University of Chicago under William Rainey Harper, turning a small Baptist college into a world-class institution by 1900. He also gave a grant to the American Baptist Missionaries foreign mission board, the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society in establishing Central Philippine University, the first Baptist and second American university in Asia, in 1905 in the heavily Catholic Philippines.