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.”

Kelly Hurst: Shadow Warrior (Founder and Executive Director; Being Black At School)

Kelly Wickham Hurst makes some people nervous. All her life people have responded to her either by challenging her to reach her obvious potential or resenting her for exceeding their ability to control. As a youth, she was an athlete. Taller than her peers, she was faster than most, stronger than many and played every sport imaginable. Not only was she good, she didn’t mind telling others about her athletic prowess. She was a member of a neighborhood all girls football team. When a boy threw a rock at her sister’s face because he wasn’t allowed to play with them. The whole team chased him through the neighborhood to make him pay for what he did. Her sister came away with a scar near her eye. Kelly came away invigorated from having acted when someone “did something vile to a girl.”

She was almost sidetracked when she became a teen mother. People looked at her differently. Expectations diminished, she had “ruined her life.” Kelly shrunk a little metaphorically. She no longer bragged of accomplishments, she still had goals but kept them to herself. Kelly finished college, and more or less stumbled into her future career.

She didn’t originally want to be a teacher. She was an English literature major and one day drove a friend to a student teaching position. She decided that day what she wanted to do with all her knowledge was “give it back to children.”

It took her a while to begin speaking up in faculty meetings and offering opinions. Early on she was recognized as “brilliant.” A tiny bit of reinforcement brought back the bravery and confidence she had as a girl, withdrawn no more. She became known as, “that opinionated teacher,” and hasn’t held back since.

A district representative asked teachers if they wanted to pursue administration and earn a Master’s degree. Kelly raised her hand. During her second year, she responded to a question as to “why she wanted to be a principal” in this manner. “Leadership found me,” and she “wasn’t going to shy away from it any longer.” She had started down a path that was going to make some people nervous.

Kelly moved into administration in a desire to help more children than she could in the classroom. She also saw how students, particularly those of color were treated by administrators and other teachers. She witnessed the disparity of suspensions and expulsions. The inequitable treatment and offering of resources. She sat on committees, raised her voice, and made people uncomfortable.

Her personnel record was spotless. There were never any formal reprimands. When she made people nervous by pointing out the systemic disparities. They never reprimanded her. They moved her instead, more than once to hopefully still her voice. Instead of quieting her, she got louder as she began to attain a significant online presence. She wrote about education, life, and race. It was when she wrote about race she made some people most uncomfortable.

There were small victories. One year her position was scheduled to be cut and she was told she’d be moved. Magically, her position was not cut and she remained at the school. A year later she learned that parents of color stormed the administration center and demanded she be allowed to remain for their kids. Her blog, Mocha Mommacontinued to grow and in 2014 she won the Iris Award for “Most Thought Provoking Content.” She started getting speaking engagements. In 2015, she received the Inspire Award given by students in a 4-H Program. Her following grew, yet in her homeland of Springfield, IL. The prophet was without honor.

Photo: 5

By 2016, as a Guidance Dean at a technology magnet school. She ran the school’s Problem Solving Team that brainstormed on how to keep kids from falling through the cracks. She had served on the Curriculum Council and served on the Minority Concerns Council. She attended a Truancy Review Board meeting monthly where she heard the individual cases and couldn’t help but notice the disparate treatment of minority kids. The District sought her input which was duly documented, yet rarely listened. Springfield had been operating under a consent decree regarding their past policies and was very interested in the appearance of being responsive to minority communities. It seemed the appearance alone was sufficient.

As the school year 2016–17 approached. Kelly was being sent to a new position. One where she would have less interaction with students which was her whole reason for choosing her career to begin with. The monetary incentives for staying were high. The frustrations of speaking but not being heard were greater. Newly married, the impact of a significant financial hit made it a family decision. Backed by the knowledge they would survive the transition and she had their full support; she made plans.

Over the years as an educator and blogger with national renown. She had accumulated friends who backed her, none including Kelly herself the exact direction her new venture would take. Her Board Members include Luvvie Ajayi — New York Times Best Selling Author, Denene Milner — New York Times Best Selling Author, Kristen West Savali — Assoc. Editor. Social Justice. Culture. Education. The Root, Dr. Camika Royal — Co-Director, Center for Innovation in Urban Education, Loyola University Maryland, Jose Luis Vilson — Teacher, Author, Activist, and other big hitters. She resigned from her position with the school system on faith without an announced plan. When she resurfaced, she came out with Being Black At School!


Being Black at School has huge goals. They strive to, “utilize data and policy analysis to foster a movement for making schools safer and more equitable for black students.” Their approach is “data driven, grass-roots focused, and concentrated at all the levels of decision making. In the community, in the classroom, and in the statehouse.” Their movement seeks to:

  1. Advocate for equitable schools
  2. Promote learning environments and professional development that embraces multiculturalism
  3. Protect Black students from racially charged discipline measures
  4. Challenge government policies to accommodate the diversity of American classrooms

For 23 years she watched Black students and other students of colors being marginalized in a public school environment. Instead of being held down and having her voice smothered. Kelly Wickham Hurst stepped up, stepped out on faith, and followed her dream of giving back to children.

Kelly Wickham Hurst is a true Shadow Warrior although I suspect she won’t remain in the shadows much longer. Being Black at School now has a growing staff and is preparing to announce the first several city chapters of Being Black at School. 26 communities responded to their initial appeal. You can support BBAS by Staying In The Know ,or Joining The Movement, and of course you can Donate.

Kelly has a new granddaughter nicknamed “Mugsy” that has stolen her heart. Her Facebook page is filled with Mugsy pictures, reports, and tales of visits. While there might be some inclination to slow down and spend more time with family. Mugsy is yet another reason that Being Black at School must succeed. Kelly was always driven to help children. Now it’s become just a bit more personal.


Kelly is still making some people nervous. She addresses things head on they’d rather not talk about. She’s upsetting to comfort zones and demands change. The withdrawn girl begat the opinionated teacher that begat the confident administrator that begat the Founder and Executive Director of Being Black at School. Kelly Wickham Hurst… Shadow Warrior.

Originally published March 7, 2017

The Wilson Academy: Shadow Warriors

This month’s Shadow Warriors literally have Warriors in their name. The Wilson Academy Warriors boys’ basketball team and the cheer squad. 16 young men and 15 young women who chose not the path of least resistance. They stood on principle despite pressure to succumb. These experiences of their youth will help define them for a lifetime. Under pressure, their character was revealed. Self-sacrifice, perseverance, strength, and honor. The character of many others was revealed as well. Some acquitted themselves well, others not so much.

Wilson Academy is a small accredited private school in Lithonia, Georgia just outside Atlanta. While this story centers around a sports team. It’s important to note that the focus of the school is centered around academics. The Headmaster, Byron Wilson played college basketball at North Carolina A&T and Ohio State but never emphasized athletics over academics. The school with 70 students grades six through twelve, sponsors sports teams in basketball, cross country, track, and tennis. The focus isn’t on winning but development and challenge. Most of the athletes aren’t harboring dreams of a career in athletics but are focused on the next academic level. At a recent Black College Expo in Atlanta; one basketball player was offered immediate acceptance at 9 different institutions. Their students including the athletes participate in robotics competitions. In April, many will be taking a school trip to South Africa. Their athletes and cheerleaders participate in sports… they are not defined by them.


Photo: Tiffany Wilson

Their saga started during Cross Country Season in the fall. The team members decided to take a knee during the playing of the National Anthem. Many have tried to define this protest on their terms. Making it about disrespecting veterans and the military. The Wilson Academy students respect the military greatly. Many have family members who have served or still serve. The protest which began organically with a single student was about police shootings, inequity and the constant of never any justice. During the season, several veterans they encountered expressed that not only do they not feel disrespected. They were grateful that because of their actions, we live in a society where injustice can be protested.

At the initial event where the kneeling began. The Headmaster/Coach first became aware when an adult was harassing the student. He intervened on behalf of the team member. No adult has a right to verbally abuse and threaten a child. When Cross Country season ended, basketball season began. The same student was a member of the basketball team where he invited the rest of the team to join him. They did. The cheerleaders also. In a school of 70 students, everyone knows each other and bonds were strong.


Photo: Tiffany Wilson

The protest didn’t go on without controversy. Many family members were highly supportive. Others objected strenuously. It likely took more courage to face a father, mother, cousin or sibling than a crowd of strangers. Every member of the team continued throughout the season in their silent protest, silent at least on the part of the Wilson Academy Warriors.

Wilson Academy was in their third year as a member of the Georgia Independent Christian Athletic Association (GICAA). Most of the member schools were Christian schools, many were Military Prep Schools. Wilson Academy has students of many faiths including Muslim students. In the Division Wilson Academy played in, there were but two predominantly black institutions. The Association includes schools from all over Georgia and a few in nearby Alabama. When games were played outside the Atlanta area it was often like a different world. For the most part, the fellow competitors weren’t a problem. They just wanted to play ball. Other students, parents and adult fans were sometimes hostile. The basketball team and cheerleaders heard the things they were called. Disrespectful… despicable… niggers. Wilson Academy handled the situation with composure and grace. They never yelled back, never fought. Perhaps a little satisfaction came from winning almost all their games. Apparently, some school administrators felt especially offended. When the opportunity came for retribution, it was taken.

After the season ended, playoff games were scheduled as part of the State Championships. Wilson Academy was the #2 Seed in their Region and scheduled to play their first game at Westwood Christian Academy. Westwood informed the GICAA that they would deny Wilson Academy the right to play on their court, causing them to forfeit unless they were willing to stand for the National Anthem. The Warriors volunteered they would stay in their locker room during the Anthem to avoid controversy. That wasn’t sufficient for Westwood. They needed more. They required submission!


Photo: Tiffany Wilson

The Association informed the team after their last regular season game. They followed up with an E-mail indicating they had changed the manual to prohibit public protests at GICAA events as they were creating a “divisive atmosphere.” The President, Todd Hannon went on to say that Wilson was an “At Will” member of the GICAA and “has the right to leave if they feel they cannot comply with the new stipulations put into the manual. The Headmaster discussed the matter with the team who were unanimous in their decision that they would not stand for the National Anthem. If nothing changed, their season would simply be over.

Something changed. With two days left before the scheduled Playoff game. The Wilson Academy family sprang into action. The word was spread. People called and sent E-mails to the Association President. The Headmaster sent E-mails to Westwood Christian Academy but got no response. He reflected that in their last game there, they prayed together in the locker room. Apparently, the Christian love had subsided. He placed calls to the Association President, they weren’t returned. Todd Hannon responded to one E-mail from a family member indicating he was “traveling” and would “talk to concerned parties on Monday.” Two days after the scheduled playoff game.

The pressure continued, more calls, additional E-mails. Sponsors of the Association were made aware of the situation with the suggestion they monitor it. On the Friday morning of the game, Todd Hannon called Headmaster Wilson and they reached an agreement which would allow the Warriors to participate in the playoffs. Perhaps not a perfect solution, they did not play at Westwood Christian Academy but they will play.

One parent in their letter to the Association wrote, “The one thing that the Warriors have always understood-the greater the trial, the greater the blessing. They will go through the challenge because on the other side of the racism, hatred and discord there will be a reward.”

A grandfather wrote, “Your Email to Wilson Academy spoke of your desire for a “positive atmosphere” and blaming Wilson Academy for a “divisive” one. Wilson Academy did not change the atmosphere at your schools… it revealed it.”

Carter Wilson is the 15th cheerleader. She isn’t a student at Wilson Academy but has spent much of her life in its classrooms and hallways. She’s now in Kindergarten at another school but has always accompanied one parent or another to Wilson where her father is the Headmaster and both work. She can often be found photobombing pictures of Wilson Academy activities. She learned all the cheers and was finally was given a uniform and officially made part of the team. Carter took a knee along with the other cheerleaders at the games. She also received the abuse. One could ask, how soon is too soon to be exposed to racism and taunts? When do you tell your children, there is no Santa Claus?


Photo: Tiffany Wilson

Carter, like all the Warriors, has gained more than she lost from this experience. Yes, she discovered that people are not perfect and they will go to great lengths to keep from having to address uncomfortable truths. The lesson that will stay with them all is that sometimes you do win! Stay true to your values, know your rights, surround yourself with a strong community, don’t give up. When next they face a situation that seems unfair and beyond their control. They’ll handle it because they’ve been there before.

The Wilson Academy Warriors are aptly named. Despite their youth, maybe because of it, they stood their ground and stayed true to themselves and their beliefs. They are recognized as “Shadow Warriors” for their contribution to the struggle and the example they have provided to us all.

Basketball Team                             Cheerleaders

Sherrone Allen                                Brianna Baylor

Isaiah Daniel                                    Jasmine Brewster

Maaseiah Daniel                             Kyra Dudley

Jordan Edmonds                             Maiasia Lanier

Keandre Freeman                          Samaria Page

Edward Hardnett                           Zari Rashid

Cyean Heard (Captain)                 Asia Robinson

Byron Hurst                                     Alexandria Rumph

Craig James                                      Destiny Saladin

Braxton Martin                                Erin Simms

Dante Riggins                                   Evan Simms

Chadrick Thomas, Jr                       Ashleigh Smith (Captain)

Jeremiah Whitaker                          Tracy Walker

Jordan Whiteside                              Khelsei Wilson

Braylon Williams                              Carter Wilson

Chase Wilson (Captain)

The Wilson Academy

Wilson Academy South Africa Trip

Each month Enigma In Black will feature a new Shadow Warrior. Don’t miss a single one by scrolling down and clicking “Follow”. Please share so that we can bring these Warriors and their work out of the shadows! Would love to hear your suggestions for future Warriors which you can leave in the comments section.

Previous Warriors:

Sevgi Fernandez

Featured Photo: Tiffany Wilson

Today I Am A Dinosaur Fairy



Yesterday I was a princess

The day before a pirate

Today I am a dinosaur fairy


I build robots

The teachers need my help sometimes

The cheerleaders need me too

I’m three years’ old


Tomorrow is too far away to decide what I’ll be

I can be anything I can imagine

Today I am a dinosaur fairy



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