As the only child of parents who were both the first from either side of the family to graduate from college, both of whom attended HBCUs — Mom choosing Hampton and Dad selecting Tuskegee — there was never any doubt that I’d follow in their footsteps and attend college. The only question, unresolved until well into my senior year in high school, remained where I’d decide to matriculate.
Neither of them exerted undue pressure on me in the hopes that I might select their alma maters — a move which incidentally and in higher education lingo would thereby establish the heralded “legacy.” Still, given the numerous visits we’d taken to both college campuses throughout my childhood, my teen years in particular, it was clear that both Mom and Dad wanted me to choose their beloved schools.
Looking back, I must admit that I was not drawn to the Black college experience for several reasons. First, I did not feel the need to be indoctrinated into the “Black experience” as I had been immersed in that world from my earliest days of life. I had always celebrated the joy of being “Black and Proud.” And with my father being from Camden, Alabama and living on farm I had firsthand knowledge of Black pride and the importance of honoring the ancestors. Mom, being a Baltimore native and then transplant to Williamsburg, taught me about city life and about community living from the perspective of the colonial town in Virginia.
Second, I had been coerced and persuaded by the leadership at my college preparatory high school, Jesuit priests, who pushed their more talented students toward PWI institutions. In fact, we represented each of the Ivy League colleges with students who had been admitted. I was bound, at least I thought at the time, for Yale. (I would change my mind at the last minute to University of Michigan so I’d be closer to home).
Last, as a young man growing into manhood during the age of affirmative action, the sentiment seemed to be one that looked at HBCUs with disdain. I heard the echoes of W.E.B. Du Bois in my head and as one of the so-called “talented tenth” it was my “duty” to tackle and shine at a place where Blacks had once been denied access.
But sitting at the 151st commencement convocation for Howard University, I finally realized what makes Black colleges so special and so important both to African Americans and to world. The spirit was high as speaker after speaker shared their stories of struggle and triumph. We traveled down memory lane and revisited those trailblazers who had been instrumental in ushering in a new world for Blacks as we abandoned the shackles of slavery and picked up tools and knowledge gleaned from institutions of higher learning like Howard, Hampton and Tuskegee.
As the day drew to a close, I could not help but join with the faculty, staff, graduates and their families as we all responded to the speaker, Kasim Reed, when he said, “HU” and we all replied, “You Know.” I learned a lot during Howard’s graduation day. And it was a lesson that I will be sure to share with my grandsons as they ponder their own college experiences. Indeed, there is something quite magical about the Black Colleges and Universities of these United States.