The War on HBCUs (Their inconvenient continued existence)


Historically Black Colleges and Universities; they only ever existed because America didn’t want black men and women to attend colleges (or any schools) with their children. Well before the end of slavery, the Institute for Colored Youth was founded in Cheney, PA in 1837. It later became the Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, recognized as the nation’s first HBCU. It was a Quaker philanthropist, Richard Humphreys, who bequeathed $10,000 to found the school to educate those of African descent. Specifically preparing them to carry the torch and become teachers. Lincoln University of Pennsylvania came along in 1854 and was the first degree-granting HBCU. Wilberforce in Ohio joined them in 1856 and was the first college run by African-Americans. Wilberforce, Ohio was a stop along the underground railroad. Its goal was to be an intellectual mecca and a refuge from ignorance.

The first wave of HBCU’s was founded by black churches along with the American Missionary Association (AMA). AMA spending during and after the Civil War far exceeded that of the government’s Freedmen’s Bureau who they worked with sometimes. Among the schools founded between 1865–1867, were Atlanta University, Fisk University, Hampton University, Dillard University, and Howard University. The 2nd Morill Act of 1890 forced states (mostly Southern) to provide land grants for black schools when admission was not allowed otherwise. In other words, states that refused to de-segregate had so set aside some space to educate black students and at least pretend they cared about black kids too. That Act is how we got Tuskeegee University, Alabama A&M Univerity, Florida A&M, Fort Valley State, Kentucky State University, Maryland Eastern-Shore, Alcorn State, North Carolina A&T, and Langston University among others. You could make the case that the purpose of the 2nd Morill Act was as much to preserve segregation as educate black students, there’s no question it did both.

With the exception of those who didn’t want black people to exist at all in this country, perhaps anywhere. Most white people didn’t mind the existence of HBCUs. Though there was that time that Wilberforce was destroyed by arson in 1865 (they rebuilt). There was also the time police shot and killed two student demonstrators at South Carolina State in February 1968. Say the names of Samuel Ephesians Hammond, Jr., Delano Herman Middleton, and Henry Ezekial Smith. The white students killed at Kent State are in the history books, the black students at Jackson State not so much. For the most part, however, black colleges tended to be left alone as long as they didn’t make too many waves. The power structure had another way to keep HBCUs in check… money.

Of the ten largest HBCUs by enrollment; nine are state schools including North Carolina A&T, Texas Southern, Florida A&M, Prarie View A&M, and Jackson State. These schools are generally dependant on their state legislatures to dole out funds. Always to a lesser degree than their white counterparts. Some are under pressure to merge with other state schools. Tennessee State University was forced by a judge into a shotgun wedding with another Nashville school; UT-Nashville, in 1979. Albany State University merged with Darton State College in 2017. Each case saw an HBCU merge with a predominantly white institution (PWI) with the thought the HBCU would maintain its name and identity. A new proposal would see Albany State, Savannah State, and Fort Valley State, all merged into one institution to be called Georgia A&M and run apart from the University of Georgia system. It sounds like… exactly like separate but equal and we all know how well that one worked.

Private schools have their own pressures, always seeking to raise the funds to stay in operation. Chief among their pressures is the need to stay accredited and thus able to receive federal and state funds and the students/parents eligible for Pell grants and student loans. As most HBCUs are located in the South. The vast majority are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools; one of six groups approved by the Dept. of Education (Betsy DeVos). One can only imagine what pressures the US Government might exert on its standards for accreditation.

Even when schools meet accreditation standards. There’s always the chance the government will fail to fund them anyway. Funding for HBCUs expired on October 1, 2019, and Congress appears to be in no hurry to restore it. Democrats want to go with a two-year fix while working on a comprehensive review while Republicans want to offer permanent funding as long as multiple measures affecting higher education are adopted. Both parties are playing chicken with HBCUs in the middle.

HBCUs have always been under attack whether physical or financial. More people are questioning the need for their continued existence, given we’ve overcome the racism of the past. A closer look would reveal that the racism of the past hasn’t disappeared, the names simply change. Slavery became the Black Codes, which became Jim Crow, which splintered off into multiple other forms of oppression with the one constant throughout being voter suppression. HBCUs have been affected by this with some campuses being split into different districts in order to dilute their voting strength.

HBCUs have always done more with less. In addition to their output measured in doctors, lawyers, teachers, and scientists. Black colleges produce black leaders. We just lost Elijah Cummings (Morgan State), Kamala Harris (Howard) is running for President, John Lewis (Fisk) is the conscience of the House of Representatives. For all I could name, there are hundreds more coming to take their place. Much more than flashy bands, athletic teams, and drum lines. HBCUs hone the minds of those that attend, graduating critical thinkers who know their own worth. The war will continue, but HBCUs are up to the battle. No weapon formed against them will prosper. And mostly, the graduates of HBCUs give back and come back. Never forgetting from whence they came and not forgetting those who come after.

The Value of an HBCU Education

Photo by George Cooper

“Education will set this tangle straight!” — W.E.B. DuBois

When I set foot on the campus of Fisk University, I knew almost nothing about HBCU’s in general or Fisk in particular. When in high school, I performed extremely well on the PSAT Test and was named a National Merit Semi-Finalist. I started receiving mail and offers from hundreds of colleges and universities across the nation. The ones I knew were mainly because of their football or basketball programs. Fortunately, someone in my family was familiar with Fisk and steered me in that direction.

I was well aware of what a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) looked like. In 7th Grade, I attended University High, a private high school associated with and on the campus of the University of Minnesota. It later merged with the public school, Marshall High to become Marshall-University High. I spent six years on the fringe of the University of Minnesota campus, then the largest in the nation. I went to Gopher sports events, our football team played home games in their stadium. But for Stan Humphries, I’d have drowned in the Olympic sized swimming pool in Williams Arena. Not sure I ever said thank you, Stan… thanks!

My friends and I went to “keggers” on the banks of the Mississippi River with U of M students. We joined in anti-war protests and carried signs. When in college and doing a summer internship in Cincinnati, I took a summer school class in Economics at Xavier. I’m not unfamiliar with PWI’s, but I’m so glad I went instead to Fisk.

I’m sure I can make the case that the education I got at Fisk was as good or better than any I could have gotten anywhere. While that’s true at Fisk, Morehouse, Howard, Spelman, Hampton, and others. It might not be universally true, it’s a claim I can’t document. What is universally true of every HBCU is that it gives one space to figure out what kind of black person you’re going to be. You get a four-year respite from being told how to be black, often by those who know nothing of it.

I happened to be on the Fisk basketball team which meant I got to visit dozens of HBCU campuses; Alabama State, LeMoyne-Owen, Stillman, Miles, Alabama A & M, Talladega, Savannah State, Fort Valley, Laine, Paine, and Morehouse among others. We visited PWI’s as well, that doesn’t make me an expert but does qualify me to have an opinion.

At an HBCU, in addition to caring professors, learning our history in addition to theirs. You come away with a sense of self not attainable at a Primary White Institution. Not that black schools turn out a bunch of clones that are black in the same manner. The graduates of HBCUs are as diverse a group as can be imagined, while the majority happen to be black, an increasing percentage of non-black students also attend HBCUs. During that partial time out from the rest of the world. You learn what the black experience has been for others; adopting some views and rejecting others while you determine how you yourself are going to be black. All the while not having to figure out as a teenager, how to fit into a situation where you’re not always embraced and often rejected.

HBCUs aren’t perfect. Almost universally there are complaints about long registration lines and poor cafeteria food. What they do offer is the chance to embrace everything about being black; the music, dancing, history, bid whist, along with encouragement to excel and lead. HBCUs reinforce the responsibility to give back to your community. HBCUs promote a love affair with blackness that doesn’t end upon graduation but lasts a lifetime. When you meet a fellow HBCU graduate at any point in your life thereafter, there is a bond. One that can be tested or broken based on the individual merits but you start out with something in common.

There’s a gospel song performed by John P. Key among others, the lyrics include:

You don’t know my story

You don’t know the things that I’ve been thru

You cannot imagine…

If you went to an HBCU, there’s a part of every graduate’s story you do know. There are commonalities including a willingness to help not only each other but an understanding we have to give back to our community and our institutions. There are those that question the ongoing need for HBCUs for whatever reason. I submit there is no other institution that serves in the same manner. As Prince might say, “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

Bribery And Fraud: Affirmative Action For Rich, White People


American Colleges and Universities have often struggled with the issue of race. Primary White Institutions (PWI’s) initially in almost every instance, failed to admit most minorities at all. When they did, it was often as a result of legislation requiring minority admissions and/or affirmative action programs establishing goals for minority students. There has been a long term backlash to affirmative action students, most suggesting that deserving white students were denied admission in lieu of less qualified minorities.

Some have disingenuously taken up the cause of highly qualified Asian students who have suffered because of limits imposed by Affirmative Action programs. They place blame, typically on black students that were admitted rather than recognizing that these programs have made all minorities, crabs in a barrel, fighting for a limited number of spaces while white students enjoy the rest.

A still-developing scandal has revealed that rich people, almost all rich, white people, have been using other tools to ensure their children got into good colleges and universities and buy their way in. These schemes included having other people take their ACT and SAT tests, faking medical disabilities to allow extra time on standardized tests, and “earning” athletic scholarships in sports their children didn’t play. They faked honors earned in high school and staged photo’s of the children on rowing machines or playing water polo. One example had the parents paying from $15–75K to get a rigged test score with $10K going to the person who actually took the test. Money was routed through a mostly fake charity, apparently aspiring to keep up with the Trump family.

Among the schools known to be involved are; Georgetown, Stanford, Yale, the University of Texas, and the University of Southern Califonia. People have been quick to suggest the schools had no idea this was going on and the students were unaware the fix was in. People at the schools getting paid include athletic coaches and administrators. One would think a student might notice if someone else took their SAT and got an excellent score?

Thus far, 33 parents have been charged by the FBI as part of, Operation Varsity Blues. Several executives of firms have been charged as well with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. A couple of the parents arrested were Hollywood celebrities. I omit their names because it would distract from my main points:

1 When it’s all said and done, what will be the penalty for these crimes? Depriving better-qualified students of getting into the best schools. What are the odds one of those rich parents will go to jail? Or will they pay a small fine or see the cases dropped? Maybe the actors involved can play themselves in the movie?

2. Will we see the outrage about rich, white people, cheating the system in ways different than usual like legacy students, making huge donations, or adding a wing to a building?

The problem is not now nor has it ever been affirmative action. The existing programs have served more like a cap on minorities, significantly less than their percentage of the population. Some people have condemned the admission of minority students while readily accepting that the advantaged often take advantage. Let’s see if they even make the effort to get upset?