By Darby Farr
Data News Weekly Contributor
A century and a half
This year Dillard University marked 150 years since its founding as Straight University. Southern University in Baton Rouge, Grambling University, and Xavier University of Louisiana are all over a century old and Southern University at New Orleans has crossed half a century. Within those 100-plus years, the state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities are intricately tied to the history, development, and vitality of the Black communities they serve, scholars note. As these institutions look toward another century, their leaders and advocates say they are just as relevant and needed as they were at the turn of the century.
“HBCUs continue to provide unparalleled access and opportunities to many students from all walks of life,” said Ray L. Belton, the President of the Southern University System in Louisiana and the Chancellor of Southern University of Baton Rouge. “We create legacies and valuable contributors to this country. We are also instrumental in shaping the middle-class of America,” he added.
HBCUs are as relevant as any beneficial institution of higher education, Belton added, but HBCUs also offer a bonus because they are the cultural hub for the towns and cities, they are located in.
“Students in middle and high school consistently look up to our students, our bands, academic programs and partnerships, and see phenomenal opportunities that are within their reach,” Belton said. “We are a beacon to many through not only our educational programs but also community activities. It is important that we know that and act accordingly,” he added.
This responsibility to the Black community is rooted in their very creation and continued existence, despite challenges to higher education institutions today, according to scholars of HBCU’s history. The ideas and actions taken to change the social and political outcomes of African-Americans, have been organized at and through HBCUs.
Even today, HBCUs still continue to produce firsts among local and national leaders, and particularly for women. The first woman to be mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell, is an alumna of Xavier. The first woman of Jamaican and Indian ancestry to be elected a U.S. Senator, Kamala Harris, announced this month she was running for president, and is an alumna of Howard University in Washington, D.C. On Feb. 5, 2019, Spelman College alumna Stacey Abrams became the first Black woman to deliver the State of the Union rebuttal, after a contested Georgia State election in November 2018 where she was the first Black woman nominated to run for governor of any state, by a major party.
“HBCUs have always been the center of Black intellectualism in the Black community,” said Marcus Cox, the Associate Dean of Graduate Programs at Xavier who is a scholar of Historically Black Universities in the Jim Crow South. “When you think of all the iconic Civil Rights Activists, almost all of them were educated at Black colleges,” he added.
Cox said that he believes that HBCUs played such an important role in the Black community because they were at the center of the student movement in the fight for Civil Rights. Those student activists that led sit-in demonstrations during the 1950s, 60s and 70s were majority HBCU students, Cox explained.
“These students were going to HBCUs to not only get an education, but they were also becoming more conscious and aware of the social injustices and politics that were going on around them,” Cox added.
Education was arguably the most important weapon these student activists could have utilized in the fight for social justice. Since HBCUs were the only places that openly welcomed Black people seeking higher education, these institutions became the meeting place for educated Black people to strategically plan each detail of the Civil Rights Student Movement.
“It was of extreme importance to have a mass of people who were thinking about things in a similar way,” said David Robinson-Morris, the Director for the Center for Equity, Justice and the Human Spirit at Xavier, and who researches the current state of higher education. “On a college campus you have a critical mass of young adults who are able to mobilize and who have knowledge behind the mobilization to actually put their ideas and plans into work,” he added.
Education for people of color has always been important for them to be treated like equal citizens in a country where they were not treated equally before. Morris said that it was through education that people of color were made free, mentally.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that education is not political. All of it is,” Morris said.
African-Americans were no longer bonded by the inability to express themselves, he explained. Education allowed for them to be able to fight for their equal rights. “At Black colleges in particular, you receive an education that says you now have an obligation to go out into the world to free other people once you’ve been freed mentally,” Morris said.
Students choose HBCUs for a variety of reasons, and today it is as much about the empowerment and freedom that the Black educational space provides them, as it is the civic engagement.
“What you get at a Black college is the ability to interact and work with people that look like you, and also there is a level of consciousness that you would not necessarily get at a [predominantly White institution],” Cox said. “Students who choose HBCUs often feel like the experience they will get at a Black institution is more supportive,” he added.
HBCUs provide a place for Black students to learn without their humanity ever being put into question, Morris said. “My grandfather will tell you that it is on an HBCU campus that he felt the most human,” Morris said.