Business magnate John D. Rockefeller not only refined crude petroleum (think Standard Oil), but the way philanthropy was seen in this country. In Rockefeller’s day, it was easy for the wealthiest to throw money at mostly religious charities. Rockefeller created modern philanthropy by targeting causes, including medicine, education, racism and poverty. He donated more than $530 million.
First, Rockefeller, whose wealth in 1913 has been estimated at $21 billion when adjusted for inflation, had to make his money. After his family, who lived in Richford, New York, settled in Cleveland in 1853, Rockefeller graduated from what became Dyke and Myers College. He got a job as a bookkeeper, sold supplies to the federal government during the Civil War and established an oil-refining company with two partners.
A brilliant businessman, consolidator and organizer, Rockefeller bought out or drove out other competing oil companies. By 1878, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil controlled about 90 percent of the oil refineries in the U.S. It didn’t hurt that Cleveland’s railroad and Lake Erie transportation advantages helped make his oil business a success beyond anyone’s imagination.
Rockefeller used his money to improve Cleveland, including the establishment of parkland, Eliza Bryant Village in Cleveland (the oldest continually operating Black-founded, long-term care facility in America), and the development of parts of Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland. He donated to the building of Severance Hall and was a significant stockholder in the Arcade.