Years ago, when first considering where I’d attend college, I refused to include Black institutions on my list, believing that despite their glorious legacies, HBCUs had outgrown their usefulness. The Jesuits who led my all-boys, college prep high school firmly believed that we should only apply to schools that could provide the academic rigor and alumni connections we would need if we had any hopes of being successful in America’s cutthroat business world.
I suppose that because I ingested their philosophy hook, line and sinker was why I turned down a four-year academic scholarship from Howard University. I suppose it was also why I would spout off my well-rehearsed monologue against Black colleges to anyone willing to listen. I guess that’s why I almost regurgitated when my parents, proud graduates of Hampton and Tuskegee, respectively, encouraged me ad nauseam to consider their beloved alma maters, even taking me to both schools for personally guided tours. In the end, I chose the University of Michigan — later matriculating at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and then Princeton Theological Seminary for graduate studies.
But I sometimes wonder what different paths I may have followed if I had gone “Black.” In a 1935 essay penned by W.E.B. Du Bois, he asked “Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?” He explained that children who attend “separate Negro schools” are “treated like human beings [and] trained by teachers of their own race” … “infinitely better than making [children] doormats to be spit and trampled upon.” He believed in the significance of the environment in which children learn. Further, he concluded that Black faculty and administration from Black colleges profoundly shaped both the culture and curriculum of their institutions, also providing students with a roadmap replete with a specific set of norms, motivations and aspirations that would inform and shape their minds and establish the foundation for their futures.
It’s been over 60 years since “Brown v. Board of Education” radically altered America’s public education system, forcing former white bastions of knowledge to open their doors to Blacks. Still, segregation remains the norm in elementary education. As for our country’s predominantly white colleges, many of whom refused to admit Blacks well into the 1960s, they often present Black students with the unenviable likelihood of encountering racial hostility on their pristine campuses.
What I could not grasp at the age of 18, I now most certainly understand — Black colleges and universities matter — they’ve always mattered. Unlike their predominantly white counterparts, HBCUs and the education they provide serve as the first line of defense against theories about and beliefs in Black inferiority, an idea still embraced by many college faculty and staff on campuses that have recently encountered a surge of racial hostility.
As for Black enrollment at the 107 remaining HBCUs in the U.S., the numbers have steadily declined, from 90 percent in 1960 to 11 percent as recently reported by the New York Times. Ironically, for all the fanfare that Blacks unleashed following the “Brown” landmark decision which led to the elimination of the country’s two systems of education, it had another, unforeseen effect: the demise and closure of many HBCUs, unable to overcome rising costs of education and dwindling numbers of students who went elsewhere with their student loans and tuition checks in tow.
But HBCUs still matter proudly touting the fact that they produce 70 percent of all Black doctors and dentists, 50 percent of Black engineers and public school teachers and 35 percent of Black lawyers.
Education has long been viewed as an essential weapon for Blacks in our centuries-old war against segregation, racism, poverty, illiteracy and yes, and still most certainly even today, white supremacy. I can only imagine the obstacles our ancestors faced when they opened the doors to Cheney University (1837) and Wilberforce University (1856) — America’s first two Black colleges — and over 100 more.
Have our Black colleges and universities lost their edge? Have they become irrelevant, unnecessary and academically inadequate relics in an age where the majority of gadget-toting youth seem to be consumed with an insatiable hunger for knowledge, a seemingly unquenchable thirst for success and the inability to delay gratification any longer than it takes to shoot out a few tweets? Don’t bet on it.