Opinion: Why HBCUs were worth exploring

I didn’t attend an HBCU, but I grew up surrounded, impressed and humbled by their alumni, legacy and history.

So I’ve followed with interest The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s recently concluded series on historically black colleges and universities. Given my life’s journey, I can see why this reporting was both important, and why it would be misunderstood, and even reviled by some.

Some reader comments the AJC’s received SHOWS that the history and longstanding purpose of these institutions is not universally known, or accurately understood.

My life experience’s taught me otherwise, and I hope relaying some of that here today can help shed light on this group of institutions, why they remain relevant today and why their challenges should be assertively addressed.

It’s settled history to me that this nation’s historically black colleges have played an important role that’s benefited Americans of all races. The AJC’s work will hopefully, over time, raise substantial questions of what HBCU’s will be, can be, and should, or should not be, in the future. These are hard, unavoidable questions. And they cannot be answered fully, I believe, by only hearkening back to a noble past or focusing solely on the HBCU’s that are most successful today.

First, a personal insight into the legacy thing. I attended K-12 public schools in St. Louis that remained segregated by housing patterns decades after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down separate schools for blacks and whites. I graduated from the first public high school for African-Americans west of the Mississippi River. Across the street was the building that had housed a teacher’s college for African-Americans prior to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that threw open the door for school integration. Many teachers, relatives, family friends and neighbors of my youth were alumni of the old Stowe Teacher’s College.

A gifted older cousin of mine was a proud alumna of Atlanta’s famed Spelman College too. A family friend of my youth, who had connections at Morehouse College, tried in vain to get me to enroll there. Her husband, a famed physician in his day, was the son of former slaves who traveled by horse, and then on foot, from Texas to Tennessee to attend an HBCU.

An unforgettable memory of my pre-kindergarten childhood saw this matron of African-American society once pick me up from my grandmother’s house, and then speed off to the airport for a quick flight to Atlanta, where she had business on the Spelman campus. I spent a day there, in the care of a student charged with babysitting me. That early memory of college life, its potential and possibilities has never left me.

No one believes more than I in the transformative power of a college education for what African-American leader W.E.B. DuBois called the Talented Tenth. HBCU’s should remain a vital part of this nation’s educational pool for a long time to come.

>> Complete coverage — AJC series on the health of HBCUs

The experience they offer is not an exclusionary one, despite what some may think. HBCU’s are not reserved solely for African-Americans. That hasn’t been the case for a long time. Several historically black college now have majority-white student bodies. One Eastern seaboard HBCU created a social media stir last year with photos of its white sailing team members, recruited from Europe.

In a broad sense, HBCU’s are like any other institution of higher learning. They have to compete for students, faculty, funding and the prestige that an optimal mix of all those inputs can bestow. And, like any other entity, their future surely won’t be identical to the past. As former Morehouse President John Sylvanus Wilson noted in this space last week, the number of U.S. women’s colleges has declined significantly as societal changes have opened other doors for female students.

HBCU’s are not immune to such changes. Over time, America’s HBCU’s will thrive or fade away, based on how well they adapt to economic and cultural forces, among other things. As is the case with all colleges and universities, the nimblest, best-led and best-supported institutions stand the best chance of success, or even survival.

This newspaper has faced some heat for our work examining HBCUs. Such criticism won’t alter outcomes that will ultimately be influenced heavily by immutable laws of economics and societal preferences.

Former slave and 19th century civil rights giant Frederick Douglass wrote that, “It is evident that we can be improved and elevated only just so fast and far as we shall improve and elevate ourselves.” That was a driving sentiment behind HBCUs. His words still reflect an eternal truth. And they apply in a sense to all Americans, I believe.

The greatest of America’s historically black colleges will continue to excel at providing education and nurturing for some of this nation’s most-promising youth, including many who might not otherwise have an opportunity to lift themselves toward success.

Other HBCU’s are likely to face times of hard reckoning. We’ve seen that in Atlanta. Spelman is a stable institution, offering top-tier education for bright young women. Neighboring Morehouse has a similar legacy for young men. By comparison, nearby Morris Brown College’s profound struggles in recent years have been well-documented.

Clearly recognizing both the strengths and unadorned shortcomings of America’s HBCU’s can help provide the best chance for their important work to continue , if challenges are successfully met. All Americans will benefit if this job’s done well and with fidelity.

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