In 1954, the Brown vs. Board of Education mandated that schools in America were to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” An unintended consequence was that in time, the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities would soon decline in enrollment and as far as sports is concerned, influence.
When Florida A& M University was named Time/Princeton Review “College of the Year” in 1997, I was near the end of my second year of law school at the University of Florida. Being a proud 1995 graduate of the School of Graduate Studies, I, along with the 20 or so other FAMU grads also matriculating at UF Law, was ecstatic that FAMU became the first school to be so honored.
(My graduation day at the University of Florida Levin College of Law with several Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Brothers. From 1995-98, UF Law enrolled its highest number of blacks in school history, with the majority having attended HBCUs such as FAMU, Morehouse, Howard, Tuskegee, and Paine College as undergrads)
On the morning that the magazine first hit the stands, I excitedly purchased a copy to share with several fellow Rattlers prior to class. Another student who had attended an Ivy League school as an undergraduate indignantly questioned what criteria were used for FAMU’s selection. Soon, several other students who had attended majority white institutions as undergrads joined the argument, each attempting to cast aspersions upon the honor that FAMU had received. I must highlight “attempt” because the loud verbal clap back that I launched soon had most within earshot learning about FAMU’s record for academic excellence, along with an impromptu history lesson about the impact of black colleges in general.
Whenever I recount this story, most assume that I was debating one of my white colleagues. To my chagrin, the FAMU detractors that day were black, each of whom had chosen to attend majority institutions because of their alleged academic superiority. Having been practically raised on the FAMU campus and attending Morehouse College as an undergrad, I naively assumed that all blacks understood the importance of black colleges. I was wrong.
As I began my argument, I quickly reminded the doubters that most of the elite black achievers and historical luminaries had matriculated at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Their initial looks of incredulity begin to wane as I rattled off titans like Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall and W.E.B. Dubois–all black college graduates. I discussed the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Sudler Award winning FAMU Marching 100, the only American band invited to participate in the French Bicentennial in 1989.
I mentioned Mary McLeod Bethune and her importance in FDR’s “Black Cabinet.” I discussed Hampton grad and Tuskegee founder Booker T. Washington as well as noted scientist George Washington Carver. I asked whether any of them had ever visited the Tuskegee campus to observe the buildings that were constructed by the students themselves. I reminded my unenlightened friends that we succeed because they succeeded first and that no black, regardless of their undergraduate school, should ever dismiss the legacy or potency of our institutions.
Today, some argue that the aforementioned figures attended black colleges because they had no choice. They argue that since the Brown decision, most of the top black students attend majority institutions. Despite these suggestions, black college grads remain at the vanguard of leadership in America. Nikki Giovanni, a lauded poet whose words soothed the Virginia Tech Campus following a horrific massacre a decade ago, is a Fisk alumna. Oprah Winfrey, one of the wealthiest and most influential American women, graduated from Tennessee State University–an HBCU. The Chairman of Microsoft is none other than John W. Thompson, a graduate of FAMU.
In 2008, when Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a Howard University grad, was removed as then senator and presidential aspirant Barack Obama’s spiritual adviser, he was replaced by the Rev. Otis Moss, III, who was a schoolmate of mine at Morehouse during the early 1990’s.
(Morehouse Men: I am pictured here in 2017 with President Barack Obama’s spiritual adviser, Rev. Otis Moss III, and my classmate and Fraternity Brother, Rev. Malone Smith, at Bethel AME Church in Tallahassee)
More importantly, statistics continue to show that HBCU’s produce the majority of blacks who earn advanced and professional degrees. Throughout the world, black college graduates are teaching, healing, building and advocating the cause of the dispossessed.
Still, over the past decade, many HBCU’s have struggled against the weight of dwindling corporate contributions and individual giving in the wake of the Great Recession.
Despite these financial concerns, coupled with the fact that integration has allowed a generation of black parents to send their students to any college that they gain admission, we must not forget that many of the most dominant figures of the African Diaspora are all black college alums and that these colleges continue to provide a first-rate academic experience for those who attend.
Sadly, one of the lingering effects of slavery and Jim Crow is that some blacks believe that if it isn’t endorsed by whites, that it isn’t right. I discussed this recently with an acquaintance who attended the University of Maryland as an undergrad who, like my law school classmates of yore, questioned the quality of black college education. I asked him how many Rhodes Scholars had Maryland produced in its history. As he did not know, I informed him that Maryland, an academically prestigious school, has one Rhodes Scholar in its history, nearby Howard University, an HBCU, has two and my undergrad alma mater Morehouse, also an HBCU, has three.
Despite their continuing success, HBCU’s still have the aforementioned economic concerns, issues with hazing and since 1970, many of the public HBCU’s have to fend off merger attempts by their state legislatures. In 2011, students from Jackson State University, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State University, each an HBCU, led efforts to repel then Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s suggestion that the three merge to form one university. Governor Barbour first proposed this in an effort to address a projected 715 million dollar shortfall in the Mississippi state budget in 2011.
In the 1970’s and 80’s Florida A&M University (FAMU) persistently fought legislative efforts to merge it with predominantly white Florida State University. But for the advocacy of then FAMU presidents Benjamin Perry and Walter Smith, coupled with those of state legislators from Donald Tucker to Pat Thomas, FAMU may have ceased to exist.
In many states, public HBCU’s were organized under a dual track or separate system administered by a board appointed by the governor or state legislature. In his book FAMU: A Centennial History, Dr. Ledell Neyland recounts the history of Tennessee State University in Nashville, which was for years the predominantly black counterpart to the University of Tennessee.
In 1968, UT announced plans to expand its Nashville campus into a full-fledged institution. The result was an attempt to then merge TSU with UT-Nashville, but with the UT trustees serving as the governing board. Dr. Frederick Humphries, who served as TSU’s president from 1974 until being named president of FAMU in 1985, valiantly fought against these efforts. Neyland writes, “Dr. Humphries informed the governor that he and his colleagues were agreeable to a merger–under the Board of Regents, not the University of Tennessee trustees.” As a result, the TSU-UTN merger was the first time that a predominantly white institution had been placed under the auspices of a historically black institution.
(The legendary Dr. Frederick S. Humphries, past president of Tennessee State University from 1974-85, and Florida A&M University 1985-2001)
Contrary to popular belief among many whites, HBCU’s were not founded by blacks to segregate themselves–they were founded because precious few opportunities existed for blacks to attend majority institutions following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy vs. Ferguson decision in 1896. Despite being under-funded for decades, most of these schools thrived both academically and athletically.
But since the end of segregation, there has been an argument that HBCU’s have outlived their usefulness. Some HBCU critics cite poor graduation rates as proof without acknowledging that many HBCU students take longer to graduate for a plethora of reasons, including outside employment. Others argue that HBCU’s are antithetical to the very purpose of the Civil Rights Movement, which was integration. While a legitimate question, it is equally legitimate for HBCU proponents to ask why, then, are the HBCU’s the first on the legislative chopping block as opposed to non-HBCU’s? In Mississippi, the predominantly white University of Southern Mississippi has a similar mission and enrollment demographics to the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State Universities, yet the governor did not advocate merging USM with the other two.
It is without question that HBCU’s continue to serve a vital role. Michelle Nealy, writing in the periodical Diverse Issues in Higher Education, notes, “While HBCU’s represent only three percent of all colleges and universities, they enroll close to one-third of all black students.” Nealy further notes that three-quarters of all African-American PhD’s did their undergraduate studies at an HBCU.” For example, Xavier University, an HBCU in New Orleans, ranks first in the number of African-American students admitted to medical schools and ranks third in the production of African-American Doctor of Pharmacy graduates. Top 100 Producers of Minority Degrees ranking, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education has ranked North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University the No. 1 producer of African-American engineers at the undergraduate level; the No. 2 producer of African American engineers at the master’s level; and the No. 4 producer of African American engineers at the doctoral level. According to the United Negro College Fund, HBCUs produce 70 percent of all black dentists and doctors, 50 percent of black public school teachers, and 35 percent of black lawyers. Indeed, while the fight for funding remains, the viability of HBCUs and the necessity of their survival remains as well.