Reed Hastings, the co-founder of Netflix, and his wife, Patty Quillin, donated $120 million to the United Negro College Fund, Spelman College and Morehouse College, the largest-ever individual gift to support scholarships at historically black colleges and universities.

The record donation comes amid protests following the police killing of George Floyd, and the national conversation about how to end systemic racism. That conversation has included discussions about how to provide more education and job opportunities for African Americans.

Unlike the Ivy League universities that have endowments in the tens of billions of dollars — Harvard University’s endowment tops $40 billion — the top historically black colleges and universities, or H.B.C.U.s, have endowments that are the hundreds of millions of dollars. Spelman College’s endowment, for example, is around $390 million.

Mr. Hastings said he and Ms. Quillin want to help change that.

They have made education a primary focus of their philanthropy, and have given smaller amounts in the past several years to the same institutions. “I think white people in our nation need to accept that it’s a collective responsibility,” Mr. Hastings said. Mr. Floyd’s killing and the emotional outpouring that followed were “the straw that broke the camel’s back, I think, for the size of the donation,” he added.

Mr. Hastings said that he hoped that the donation would lead other wealthy individuals to give to H.B.C.U.s. “Generally, white capital flows to predominantly white institutions, perpetuating capital isolation,” he and Ms. Quillin said in a statement announcing the donation. Mr. Hastings is worth $5.3 billion, according to Bloomberg.

Indeed, many of the largest donations in education have been made by alumni to their alma maters. Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, gave $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University in 2018; his collective gifts to that school top $3 billion.

Last year, the billionaire financier Robert F. Smith donated $34 million to pay off the debts of Morehouse’s graduating class, one of the biggest individual H.B.C.U. donations at the time.

Dr. David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse College, said that raising money at the scale usually given to the top, historically white schools has been near impossible. “The reality is that our alumni have done quite well. But I don’t think we have any billionaires,” he said.

Before he came to Morehouse, Dr. Thomas taught at Harvard Business School and was the dean at Georgetown University’s business school. “There you had much more wealth within the alumni base. So you don’t have to go out as much,” he said. “And it’s easy to raise money from people who aren’t in the alumni base because your alumni can take you to them. Here, it’s really about developing and cultivating relationships, oftentimes with people who don’t know what an H.B.C.U. — what that even means.”

The need for funds is particularly acute given the economic challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic is creating both for students and schools, said Dr. Michael L. Lomax, the chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, who introduced Mr. Hastings and Ms. Quillan to Spelman and Morehouse. He is hoping to raise $1 billion to address the effects. “That’s the scale of the need,” he said. “So we’re at about $60 million today. $40 million of that is from Patti and Reed. We need not 10 times that amount. We need almost 20 times that amount.”

Mr. Hastings and Ms. Quillan have been active in education philanthropy and reform for many years. Mr. Hastings has promoted charter schools and briefly sat on the board of education in California. He is on the board of Pahara Institute, a nonprofit that helps train teachers and supports the education reform movement. Recode reported on Tuesday that Mr. Hastings is building a retreat in Colorado for teacher training. He and Ms. Quillan have signed the Giving Pledge, promising to give away the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes.

Mr. Hastings has also sought to diversify Netflix’s work force. Netflix reported that seven percent of its employees in the United States are African-American, as are eight percent of its company leaders, which is among the highest in the technology industry (but still only about half the share of African-Americans in the overall population). Netflix was an early supporter of high-profile black directors like Ava DuVernay. Yet the company has also been accused of promoting content by race, which it disputes as impossible because it says it doesn’t collect information about the ethnicity of its customers.

The large donation to the H.B.C.U.s, which will receive $40 million each, came as a surprise to their leaders.

“When they first talked to us they said to us they were making a $20 million gift. And we thought that was unbelievable. I mean, truly I was speechless. I actually cried,” said Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, Spelman College’s president. The next day, she received an email from Ms. Quillin: “They were upping it to $40 million.”

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