Dispelling the Myth of the Black Ivy League: A Conversation


History of the Term and Background

In 1967, the Harvard Educational Review published an article written by Harvard professors Christopher Jencks and David Riesman, titled “The American Negro College.” In the article, Jencks and Riesman used the term, “Negro Ivy League” to describe what they defined as academically rigorous Black colleges such as Fisk, Spelman, and Morehouse. In contrast, they categorized the historically Black institutions that were not as ‘strong’ as “academic disaster areas.” Jencks and Riesman used the term “Negro Ivy League” to relegate “non-Black Ivy” Black colleges to the status of dropout factories with unqualified faculty and staff and makeshift academic facilities.

Nearly two decades later, in 1984, Jacqueline Fleming, author of Blacks in College, used the term “Black Ivy” to differentiate ‘stronger’ Black colleges from others in her comparison of Black students’ experiences at historically White institutions and Black colleges. Such distinction has created an elite category among HBCUs that is troubling as it calls into question the credibility of other HBCUs and is based on anecdote and not data.

Use of the Term Black Ivy and Connection to the Black Elites

The term Black elite refers to the highly educated and affluent sector of Black communities. These individuals are granted opportunities for generating wealth, attending top-tier schools, and have access to elite spaces. The Black elite can be seen on television in families such as the Huxtables on The Cosby Show, the Banks on the Fresh Prince of Belair, and the Johnson’s on Blackish. In his book, Our Kind of People (1999), Lawrence Otis Graham categorizes the Black Ivy League based on their significance to the Black elite, with this significance stemming from the institution’s alumni reputation and support amongst Whites.

Graham claims “Black Ivy” institutions such as Howard, Spelman, and Morehouse “will continue to attract the smartest children from elite families.” Graham claimed that because they are schools that are well respected in the White corporate and professional community, the graduates of these schools will continue to have access to good jobs and graduate schools. For these reasons, members of the Black elite will continue to embrace these three schools for their children” (1999, p. 82). 

Our Conversation

Aisha: Jenks and Riesman named Fisk, Howard, Spelman, Morehouse, Hampton, Tuskegee, and Dillard as the “Negro Ivy League” (p 44). They deemed these institutions as academically exceptional among HBCUs.

Aisha: The term “Negro Ivy League” is an implicit comparison between HBCUs and Ivy League institutions. By placing the term “Negro” in front of “Ivy League,” Ivy League schools become the standard and “Negro Ivy Leagues” are a lesser branch of that standard. The seven “Negro Ivy League” schools were known as the top tier Black institutions.

David: Both Jencks and Riesman were White men and Harvard professors at the time the article was written. Jacqueline Fleming, albeit a Black woman, never attended, taught, or worked at an HBCU prior to writing Blacks in College. Despite the researcher’s lack of experience at HBCUs, their work helped set the academic foundation for HBCU hierarchy based on Whiteness as the standard.

Aisha: In addition to Riesman, Jenks, and Fleming’s problematic statements, we must also recognize the division Otis-Graham created among HBCUs with his statement that only the certain HBCUs matter. By making this statement, Otis-Graham negated the rich history and upward movement that Blacks from the other hundred HBCUs in this country have contributed to the progress of Black people.

David: If we use Otis-Graham’s logic, we would think that only HBCUs who attracted the “Black elite” truly mattered—Howard, Spelman, and Morehouse. With this logic, we would also then discard everything individuals did who attended HBCUs other than those who attracted the “Black elite” because they “didn’t matter”. For example, Shaw University students founded the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—a key organization in the Civil Rights Movement. Also, Medgar Evers, Alcorn State University alum, was integral in Black liberation. Should we overlook these individuals because they didn’t go to a “Negro Ivy League” school? When these terms are given to us by people who are not from HBCU culture (those who never taught, worked at, attended, nor invested time in HBCUs), they seem to do more damage than good.

David: Thus, this is an example of the dangers of using an oppressive hegemonic mindset to judge Black institutions; this mindset is used by both Blacks and Whites. If you take on the dominant society’s view of your own culture’s institutions, you can run the risk of negating your own strength.

David: So, why is the term is offensive? How does it impact the HBCU brand?

Aisha: One reason why the term is offensive is because it figuratively says that HBCUs cannot be an independent entity with our own strength, power, and resources. We have to be compared to a White framework of education in order to be something that is worth mentioning and worth crediting as a good institution. This ideology is completely the opposite of what a lot of HBCUs, dare I say all of them, were founded on. Schools like Howard, Morehouse, Bethune-Cookman, FAMU, and North Carolina A&T—most HBCUs— pride themselves on training and educating Black professionals in various fields of study. HBCUs teach diasporan Black people from a framework that empowers and affirms Black intellect, experience, and power. And when you take on a persona of comparison to a White institution, you’re taking away this Black framework.

David: The next question is why should we get rid of these terms? And why should Black people, specifically, not use these terms?

David: The first reason why we should get rid of this term is because the people who created the term “Black Ivy” created it with the centering of Whiteness and not Blackness. When a lens of Whiteness is placed on a Black college it’s problematic because it takes away from the purpose of HBCUs. They were created to train educated, productive and gainfully employed Black people in all areas of society; this was done through a Black diaspora-centered perspective. Secondly, this term also puts a hierarchy on HBCUs that we—people of the African Diaspora who are connected to HBCUs—didn’t place upon ourselves.

David: Traditional White values privilege competition over communal uplift. When we try to divide HBCUs and begin to think, “My school is better than another school because I’m part of “Black Ivy,” you are literally undermining everything that our ancestors went through to have those institutions built. When Black students continue using the term, we perpetuate this ideology and psychology of separatism between our institutions. White people, if uneducated about HBCUs, are going to look at them like they are all the same. We need to come together to strengthen all HBCUs—not put our noses in the air and say we went to a “Black Ivy.”

Aisha: In fact, the term actually isn’t legitimate because its foundation—historically White institutions—and HBCUs—historically Black institutions— are different. The “Ivy League” was originally an athletic league that included Harvard Yale, Cornell, Columbia, Princeton, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth. Since it’s inception, the term has taken on a White elite meaning. The terms Public Ivy and Southern Ivy are also readily used to describe elite public institutions and elite institutions in the South.

We should put a stop to this term and start a communal conversation about what an HBCU education looks like, the diversity within it, noting that one HBCU education doesn’t have to be better than another.

Whether one is a Black student at a historically White institution, a Black student at a “Black Ivy” (coined by the aforementioned authors), or a Black student at an HBCU not under the problematic “Black Ivy” school list, the education Black students receive at each school is equally important. We need to think more about how the words we use undermine our efforts to collectively uplift HBCUs.

David: Will getting rid of the term “Black Ivy” dismantle the elitist mindset amongst HBCU alumni?

David: While I do not know that answer for sure, I do know it’s a good step in the right direction. Anytime you can remove White supremacy-laced language among your own people, you take a good step in the right direction.

David: Is there a difference between elitism amongst HBCUs and pride in one’s HBCU?

David: I believe there’s a fine line between having an elitist mindset and having pride in your institution. As a graduate of Morehouse College, where many alumni are considered arrogant, I can say first hand it can be dangerous to walk that line. It is dangerous because you don’t want to be seen as elitist in a community of educated individuals who value communal uplift. As an advocate for HBCUs, I believe every person who attends an HBCU should feel like theirs is the best because your ancestors created it specifically for you. HBCUs did and still do what no historically White institution did at their creation—educate descendants of slaves with minimal resources.

David: And for our last question, how can HBCU students, alumni, and supporters help in dismantling this term? Should we use a different term instead?

David: I think we need to stop using it. Period. There’s no benefit in creating a caste system amongst HBCUs, so we shouldn’t replace it with anything either. We must educate people about where this term comes from through dialogue. Aisha and I talked about how while I was at Morehouse and while she was at Howard, we never heard any professor, administrator, or other students use the term. However, we do recognize that this is our personal experience and the term might have been used at our own HBCU, other institutions, or with other alumni. People who generally know little about HBCUs also use the term. Many think they are giving you a compliment by saying, “Oh yeah, you went to one of those Black Ivy Schools.”

Dialogue is important because many people don’t know where the term came from, who created it, or why they created it. And that is the purpose of this Unplugged post—to explain how the term was created and question its meaning and impact. Now, knowing the term’s history, would you still use the term? It’s like a backhanded compliment. HBCU’s are academic disaster areas…but then there’s the Black Ivy…well, which one is it?

Aisha: We must start a conversation around HBCU academic performance. It is no secret that there are HBCUs that perform at higher rates or perhaps have more access to resources. Thus, what can we do as students, alumni, and community members to uplift HBCUs that aren’t performing at the high levels?

In closing, the use of the term “Black Ivy” is a myth because it creates a comparison between elite historically White institutions and HBCUs that should not exist. The term also creates elitism and separatism amongst HBCUs, which are values that don’t empower and affirm Black intellect, experience, and power.

Aisha Bowen serves as a Research Assistant for the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. She is also a first-year Master’s Student in the Penn Graduate School of Education studying International Education Development. She is native of Richmond, Indiana, and holds a B.A. in English from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

David C. Hughes is a Research Associate for the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions and a pre-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a proud Morehouse College and Prairie View A&M University alumnus.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s