Historically Black Colleges and Universities Provide Hope for the Future

Stories of doom and gloom have dominated headlines recently around discussions of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Within the past year, we have witnessed the closing of Concordia College — a HBCU in Selma, Ala. founded in 1922 — disagreements about how cash payouts from the Ayers settlement should be used, and academic struggles related to the maintenance of accreditation. All of these challenges raise age-old questions about the ability of these schools to maintain their educational and economic viability. Mired in debt, struggling to attract students, and beset by doubts about their continued relevance in an imagined post-racial society, HBCUs face overwhelming odds.

Despite these challenges, there is great hope and possibility. Black HBCU graduates are increasingly visible in some of the most pathbreaking artistic and political endeavors of the 21st century. Howard University graduates are breaking barriers and charting new paths in Hollywood: Chadwick Boseman became an overnight sensation for his role as T’Challa, King of Wakanda, in Black Panther, one of the highest grossing films of all time; Taraji P. Henson’s performance as Cookie Lyons in the critically acclaimed series Empire continues a long tradition the university’s performing arts graduates pioneered by sisters Debbie and Phylicia (Allen) Rashad.

HBCU alumni have also been at the forefront of political change in the Trump period. Andrew Gillum, a Florida A&M University graduate and current mayor of Tallahassee, made an inspirational run for the governor of Florida last November that catapulted him into national prominence. Similarly, Spelman graduate Stacey Abrams's spirited race for Georgia governor — where she stood poised to become the first African American female governor in history — reinvigorated discussions about voter suppression. Abrams played a leading role in this debate by refusing to concede the race due to voter irregularities and by founding Fair Fight Action, an organization devoted to fighting voter suppression. California Senator Kamala Harris recently chose Howard University to launch her bid for the presidency of the United States.

As these accounts demonstrate, dispiriting stories often confuse and obscure more complex narratives about HBCUs. Embracing this complexity is critical to projecting an accurate portrait that highlights HBCU's centrality to African American life and the globe. The best way to accomplish this goal is to centralize three crucial issues that are often missing from the discussion: gender inclusion, global reach, and who gets to tell the HBCU story. Telling this story in dynamic ways could be the spark to inaugurate another golden age. There is hope on the horizon for highlighting the HBCU brand and rebranding these colleges in the present and future. Gender is an integral part of the HBCU story, and Black women played an important role in the creation and maintenance of HBCUs. Spelman and Bennett Colleges are at the forefront of producing black female leaders, but Mary McLeod Bethune’s extraordinary work establishing Bethune-Cookman College cannot be overlooked.

Bethune — the child of two formerly enslaved parents and protege of Lucy Craft Laney, who founded the first school for Black children in Augusta, Georgia in 1883 — established the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904 with $1.50 and five girls who wanted to learn. The school eventually became Bethune-Cookman College in 1931. Bethune was one of the few women to serve as a college president, founded the National Council of Negro Woman (NCNW) in 1935, and headed the Negro division of the National Youth Administration. She maintained an active friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt and played a leading role in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Negro Cabinet. She also served as the executive director of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Students at Roger Williams University in Nashville, Tenn. circa 1899. (Everett Historical, Shutterstock.com).

Pauli Murray, a Howard Law graduate and first Black female graduate of Yale Law School, likewise played an important role in shaping our understanding of Jim and Jane Crow’s impact on African Americans in the South. Like leading Civil Rights lawyers Charles Hamilton and Thurgood Marshall, Murray spent considerable time traveling throughout the South to examine the segregated conditions Blacks endured in the region. Her pioneering legal work on the case of Odell Walker, a southern sharecropper falsely accused of murder, bought the harsh realities of Jim Crow into the national spotlight. She organized committees to raise money for Walker’s defense and would later publish States’ Law on Race, which Thurgood Marshall viewed as the Bible for Civil Rights attorneys. HBCUs have also been far more inclusive of multiracial and ethnic populations than contemporary discussions allow. Diversity, a contemporary watchword for inclusion, is a defining element of Black schools. Most Black schools are named for white benefactors including Howard, Hampton, Morehouse, and Spelman, and most have both white faculty and students. Hampton Institute, the institution at which Booker T. Washington was trained, also served as a site for promoting the assimilation of Native Americans, who accounted for nearly 50 percent of the school’s population. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute followed this example and recruited students from around the world. The 1908 class at Tuskegee, for example, included students from China, India, the Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Caribbean. Liberal arts colleges were pioneers with a global reach. Howard University attracted students from all over the world and served as a central site for resistance to the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia between 1935 and 1941. The Ethiopian Research Council (ERC) included Howard faculty and Ethiopian students in the medical and dental schools. As the book and accompanying film From Swastika to Jim Crow document, Jewish intellectuals fleeing Nazi persecution found refuge in Black colleges; Albert Einstein visited Lincoln University and taught a class in 1946. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria, and Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, both graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Black schools were incubators for both the Civil Rights Movement the anti-war movement with the tragic events at Jackson State University in Mississippi in the early 1970s. Protests continued during the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the 1980s. Randall Robinson, founder of leading anti-apartheid organization TransAfrica, graduated from Norfolk State. Students at Morgan State and Howard, in collaboration with students at Johns Hopkins and inspired by the shanty movement at the University of California at Berkeley, were actively involved in anti-Apartheid activism. South African students on those campuses and many others provided a practical education about the conditions in South Africa. Throughout the 1990s and the early 21st century, HBCU students stood at the forefront of movements against police brutality, sexual harassment, gender discrimination, racism, militarism, discrimination, and marginalization of Black and Brown populations in urban communities in the United States and beyond. This is particularly true in response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the earthquake in Haiti. They also raised their voices in organizations such as the Dream Defenders to dramatize the importance of a pluralistic society. More recently, a committed group of activists led The Sandra Bland Movement on the campus of Prairie View A&M to dramatize her death under suspicious circumstances.

Ella Baker’s observation that the young are the hope and energy for the future also rings true here. In 2016, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 11 HBCUs had record enrollments, and several experienced an increase after years of enrollment decline. The dynamism of our young people reflects the possibility and promise of the American future. HBCU students are the best ambassadors for their respective schools. They are bright, thoughtful and intuitive.

The complexity of our contemporary moment is an outgrowth of the pioneering role HBCUs continue to play in our society. The heyday of Black schools is not in the distant past but in the vibrant dynamics of our contemporary moment.

As hubs for diversity and inclusion, schools are continuing long-standing policies of open access for all students regardless of race, sex, and creed. HBCUs never excluded any student, as a matter of policy, unlike many state predominantly white institutions. Kentucky State has a proportional representation of Black and white students, and many campuses are moving to fully incorporate LGBTQ students complete with inclusive admissions policies, programming, and housing accommodations.

Schools have established creative programs such as the SWAN (screenwriting and acting) at Morgan State, which provides cutting edge training in film editing and creation, and Howard University’s extension campus in Silicon Valley aims to foster diversity in the computer industry. HBCU presidents are further blazing pathways into the future. Prairie View A&M’s Ruth Simmons, a HBCU graduate and the first African American to serve as president of an Ivy League school, is widely regarded as one of America’s leading educators. She has already embarked on an aggressive agenda designed to improve the university’s academic profile.

Several HBCU presidents including Dillard’s Walter Kimbrough, (known by his Twitter handle as @HipHopPrez), Michael Sorrell from Paul Quinn College, and David Wilson at Morgan State are widely recognized as HBCU spokespersons and American educational leaders. Their innovative approaches to strategically repositioning institutions to meet the ever-changing needs of the modern era hold valuable lessons for how academia can serve diverse populations. “HBCUstorian” Crystal deGregory, director of the Atwood Institute at Kentucky State, is a pioneer in promoting the history and legacy of HBCUs and her annual HBCUStory symposium captures the dynamism of the Black academy. This effort represents one of the most far-reaching efforts to preserve and extend the legacy of HBCUs. The symposium brings together the varied stakeholders from academics to policymakers to re-envision the role of these institutions. HBCUs are as vibrant in the present as they were in the past. These schools have given us models for how to address plaguing questions about diversity and inclusion, and the need to create communities where all people can play a role in shaping the nation’s future. HBCUs have enriched nation-building bridges by highlighting the importance of global outreach and connection. These institutions are bedrocks of diversity, inclusion, and globalization, as well as sites to foster the dreams and imaginations of our young people. This is a powerful story and an even more compelling contemporary reality. We only need to amplify the unique and foundational story of HBCUs and maintain a continuous faith and realization that hope is on the horizon.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. He is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.