Black people should value HBCUs the way they value Harvard. This statement posted by HBCU Pride Nation resonated with me as the underpinnings of my interest in Black colleges.
Most people assume the logical conclusion, which is that my interest stems from being an HBCU alumna. However, that is only partially correct. My interest in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) started in high school after I made the decision to attend Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. Excited to share my final decision with my homeroom class and teacher during college decision day, I was not prepared for the snickers and condescending looks of disapproval I would soon receive.
When I announced, with pride, that I would be attending Cheyney University, the nation’s oldest historically Black institution of higher education, an immediate uneasiness came over the classroom. My teacher started to applaud in an effort to motion the applause of my classmates, and they complied. After class, my Black peers, who as if needed to be sure they heard correctly, asked in an out-casting tone: “Are you really going to a Black college (Cheyney)? Why not somewhere better?” I thought to myself “better?” aloud I said, “Did you not hear me say that I am going to the nation’s oldest historically Black institution of higher education?” Like deer in headlights, my peers were bewildered and rebutted that it was 2003 and we (Black students) no longer needed to attend Black colleges because we have other options. I was very disappointed and shocked by their reaction, particularly because my peers unknowingly just regarded HBCUs as subordinate, a vestige of the past, and no longer necessary.
Unfortunately, I spent the remainder of that school year and now my academic career, justifying my decision, advocating and educating Black people on the importance of HBCUs. No, this is not another addendum to the PWI vs HBCU debate, but rather a plea for Black people to have respect for the institutions created with the explicit purpose of the advancement of Black people. Understanding that without these institutions, the current positioning of Black people in the United States would look much different.
Can you imagine the plight of the nation without HBCUs? It is possible that education in the United States would still be segregated, and possibly still governed by Jim Crow laws. Brown v. Board of Education, known as the breakthrough desegregation case that legally ended segregation, was tried by HBCU educated and trained lawyers, Thurgood Marshall (Lincoln University & Howard University Law School) and Robert L. Carter (Lincoln University & Howard University Law School) in 1954. In 1960, four North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University students, also known as the A&T Four or the Greensboro Four, started a movement that fought against the Jim Crow laws of the South, and impacted the passing of 1964 Civil Rights Act. Those two events were monumental in giving Black Americans, and all Americans access to the liberties now received.
HBCUs are also are given credit for creating the Black middle class. In the documentary, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Professor and Historian Marybeth Gasman was quoted saying: “Black colleges were educating future doctors and future lawyers and future teachers, and nurses and judges and they were responsible for lifting African Americans out of poverty and they started to create the Black middle class as we know it”. The proceedings and debates of the 106thcongressional record also highlight this fact, in giving credit to HBCUs for producing:
- 85 percent of Black Doctors
- 80 percent of Black Federal Judges
- 75 percent of Black Veterinarians
- 75 percent of Black Military Officers
- 70 percent of Black Ph.D.’s
- 70 percent of Black Dentists
- 50 percent of Black Teachers
- 50 percent of Black Attorneys
- 50 percent of Black Engineers
- 46 percent of Black Executives
- 44 percent of Black Journalists
Black colleges exist because Black people were once systematically excluded from attending existing predominately White colleges and universities. For over 180 years, HBCUs have survived and thrived through slavery, World Wars, Jim Crow laws, segregation, integration, and sanctioned legal disparities all while supporting and maintaining a commitment to the education of Black people. At a minimum, this should be reason enough for Black people to respect HBCUs in the same way, if not more than, the way they respect other intuitions of higher education.
Janelle L. Williams is the Assistant Director for Health Policy at The University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and a Visiting Scholar at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. In addition, she currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Cheyney University Foundation.