Larry Smith

The United States perpetually wrestles with its original sin of racism, whether one considers the near genocide of this land’s original inhabitants, or the government-sanctioned 250-year enslavement (and subsequent 150-year subjugation) of Black people. Efforts to remedy American apartheid, such as the advent of affirmative action, have been systematically chiseled down. Further, as the racial demographics of this nation grow ever darker, this state of affairs seems highly unlikely to abate any time soon. We see this in the (re)birth of the nation’s white supremacist leanings, including increased domestic terrorism. 

It is in this bleak context that I argue that now is an especially propitious moment for America’s 100 or so historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to shine a light on their social, economic and academic advantages — in addition to their storied history. Oprah Winfrey, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Katherine “Hidden Figures” Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Morrison, Alex Haley, Thurgood Marshall, Chadwick “Black Panther” Boseman, Marian Wright Edelman, Michael Strahan, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the legendary Tuskegee Airmen all attended HBCUs. (This venerable list does not even begin to scratch the surface.) Incidentally, U.S. News & World Report ranks Spelman as the nation’s No. 1 HBCU, followed by Howard University at No. 2. Hampton University and Morehouse College are tied at No. 3, while Louisiana’s Xavier University rounds out the top five. 

Overall, 62% of Black women enroll in college after high school graduation, as do 36% of Black men. HBCUs enroll roughly 9% of all Black college students (down from 17% in 1976). Further, HBCUs graduate 9% of African-Americans who earn bachelor’s degrees, 6% who earn master’s degrees and 11% who earn PhDs.

The term “HBCU” distinguishes these schools from predominately white institutions (PWIs.) Most HBCUs were established in the southern U.S. following the Civil War. Most PWIs (not just in the South) had either explicit or subtle policies that excluded or severely limited African American enrollment. HBCUs were founded as a result — often with support from religious institutions (Black and white). Unfortunately, most HBCUs went into decline, both in terms of enrollment and financial support, due to the double-edged sword of desegregation. Indeed, the doors of many HBCUs closed as a result of the doors at PWIs being opened to us. 

Importantly, HBCUs have never excluded students of other races. In fact, a handful of HBCUs actually have majority white student populations. For example, West Virginia’s Bluefield State College, which was founded as Bluefield Colored Institute in 1895, is now more than 80% white. Given the racial history of this nation, I am certain that, if HBCUs as a group were to start substantially gaining in popularity (and, therefore, raising much more money) this exception would become the rule. Space constraints prevent me from making this case more explicitly, but there are several examples of state governments allowing PWIs simply to “acquire” land and other assets that were once owned by HBCUs, often with little or no compensation. 

Fortunately, Black high school graduates are beginning to take a closer look at HBCUs than many of their parents (and some of their grandparents). There is even anecdotal evidence that some top African American high school athletes have begun to seriously consider HBCUs, spurning the opportunity to play at PWIs, which generally receive much more frequent (and broader) television exposure — and visits from pro scouts. (I should note that, in the not too distant past, HBCU Grambling State University had more alums playing in the NFL than any other college or university.)

As a first-generation college student who was not exposed to very many college graduates as a young man, I was generally ignorant about HBCUs. I knew that Martin Luther King graduated from Morehouse. I knew that Spelman and Howard existed. That was about it. Thus, when it came time for my older daughter to select a postsecondary institution, my former wife, who is a member of Delta Sigma Theta, and I decided to send her on DST’s HBCU tour during her sophomore year. We sent her again as a junior. That’s all it took to spur her desire to attend her (now) alma mater: Tennessee State University. 

Finally, Bob Henderson of Indianapolis is an alumnus of Jackson State University. (JSU’s most famous alum is Chicago Bears legend, Walter Payton.) Henderson has been conducting HBCU tours and college fairs for several years. The next HBCU fair will be held at Lawrence North High School 6-8:30 p.m. May 21. If nothing else, go and be educated about what these truly historic institutions have to offer!  

 

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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