Anyone who spends more than 30 minutes with me will soon learn that I am a staunch supporter of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. For over a century and a half on campuses throughout the South and East Coast, these colleges have served as incubators for individuals, who were not to the manor born, but endowed with a dream of gaining an education, did so, often amid the oppression of the post Reconstruction South and later Jim Crow.
And while integration has allowed talented black students to attend schools of their choice, statistics show that America’s HBCU’s still produce a high percentage of blacks with post-graduate and professional degrees, both of which remain keys to bridging the so-called “Black Achievement Gap.”
Despite these facts, the major media often seem to focus more on the fact that blacks continue to be represented disproportionately in out-of-wedlock births and on prison rolls. All too often, black achievement—sans the racism gap—is not heralded to the decibel that it should.
To that end, I would like to begin this Women’s History Month by highlighting my mother, Dr. Vivian Hobbs, who in 2010, ended 44 years as a junior and senior high school teacher and for the last 25 years of her career, as a professor of English and Humanities and Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) at Florida A&M University.
A native of Camilla, Georgia, Hobbs grew up in Tallahassee, Florida where she graduated with honors from both FAMU High School and FAMU, majoring in English.
(Mom, the second girl from the right as a 7th grader at Lucy Moten/FAMU High, participating in the segregated Spelling Bee. Seated to her right is her classmate, Luther Weems, who would later become renowned psychologist and author Dr. Naim Akbar)
After marrying my father, then Army Captain Charles Hobbs, in 1969, mother spent the next 14 years teaching English and Civics at high schools across the nation while moving frequently as a military family. When dad retired from active duty in 1983, my mother had become one of the early leaders in the Tallahassee Democrat High School quiz bowl competition as the coach at both Lincoln High School and FAMU High School, respectively.
Five years after becoming an associate professor of English and Humanities at FAMU in 1986, Hobbs was tapped by then FAMU President Frederick Humphries to become the coach of the first FAMU Honda Campus All-Star Challenge team (HCASC). That season, their first, the Rattlers won it all! Below is her first title team at a sectional tournament in Albany, Georgia and later with then Florida Governor Lawton Chiles at the gubernatorial celebration of the victory.
Each year, HCASC competitors fight for the right to earn a $75,000 institutional grant and the opportunity to be deemed champions. For nearly 30 years, American Honda Motors has sponsored the tournament, which during its first six years was taped in Los Angeles and aired each summer on BET. Since 1996, Honda has flown between 48 to 64 teams to Orlando or its main campus in Torrance, California for a week filled with intense competition and more importantly, networking with other brilliant students.
Under Hobbs’s tutelage, FAMU has won eight national championships; the next closest team as far as all time wins is Morehouse College, which has won four championships. in 1999, the team was invited to the White House by President Bill Clinton, where they were lauded for their achievements.
HCASC official and moderator Tom Cunningham, a fraternity brother of mine who was the leading scorer on FAMU’s first championship team, perhaps summed it best when reminding the audience that if the HCASC was as revered as sports, Dr. Hobbs’s name would be mentioned in the same rarefied company of Alabama football Coach Nick Saban or UCLA’s legendary John Wooden, who won 10 NCAA basketball championships in 12 seasons.
But such mention rarely occurs because sports still have a greater hold on the collective American imagination than academic bowls and spelling bees, which is curious when considering that on some years, the Honda academic teams at the dominant schools like FAMU and Morehouse bring in as much, if not more revenue, than Olympic sports.
More importantly, in an era in which black boys and girls are taunted with the pejorative appellation of “acting white” for excelling in academics, perhaps it is time for these stories to be displayed across the varied spectrum of news media?
Among Dr. Hobbs’s notable former students are countless doctors, pharmacists, judges, lawyers, physicists, engineers, theologians, politicians and even movie moguls, where FAMU legends Will Packer (Girls Trip) and Rob Hardy (The Quad) both were students in her classes and recipients of funds from her Honda winnings that helped fund their first film projects.
(FAMU President Larry Robinson, Dr. Hobbs and a number of former players in Los Angeles after the most recent competition)
As for her national championship teams, the overwhelming majority of the players on those teams were young black men. Not that women have not made the cut, as they have and two in particular, Natalie Tindall and Gabrielle McMahan, eventually went on to perform exceptionally well on College Jeopardy before graduating with a PhD in Communications and an M.B.A., respectively.
(Hobbs and the 2016 HCASC National Champs)
And yet, you rarely see such stories chronicled on mainstream television, as the Honda tournament and other academic competitions at HBCU’s should be featured to prove that the sum total of the Black experience is not limited to acting, singing, dancing and playing ball. Not that there is anything wrong with those fields, however, but it still remains true that an industrious young student has a better chance making it into a four-year college than becoming the next Marvin Gaye, Denzel Washington or Michael Jordan.
As such, it is not merely important to discuss these topics for vainglory, rather, it is critical that young students know that folks who look, speak and were raised in similar circumstances as they have transcended humble circumstances to lead extraordinary lives. Through faith and hard work, along with the encouragement of countless educators like Dr. Hobbs, the achievement gap that is so pronounced eventually will be closed, one mind at a time.