By Aswad Walker
Now, I may not be the perfect person to put this list together, seeing that I attended two PWIs (predominantly white institutions) and taught at another. That said, my HBCU roots run deep. One of my great uncles coached at Morris Brown back in the day. My wife is a Texas Southern University (TSU) graduate. My oldest child is also an HBCU alumna (Tuskegee…T-U, YOU KNOW). And I was blessed to work at TSU for nearly a decade.
I realize none of that makes me an HBCU alum, but my love for HBCUs is overflowing. And it’s my prayer that HBCU receive way more love than they currently receive—especially from state legislators who are supposed to be funding HBCUs at an equal clip to state PWIs, yet they continually underfund them, then punish them for not performing at various level.
Still, HBCU not only carry their weight (graduating more Blackfolk than any other campuses), they show up and show out in terms of research, innovation and so much more.
But enough of the preliminaries; let’s get to the Top 10 Reasons HBCUs Deserve More Love. And just know, this list is in no certain order.
10: Track Record – HBCUs have a longstanding tradition of producing social change agents. Check out this partial list of HBCU grads and attendees: Sean “Diddy” Combs (Howard), VP Kamala Harris (Howard), Anika Noni Rose (Florida A&M), Stephen A. Smith (Winston-Salem State), Eva Marcille (Clark Atlanta), Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (TSU), Congressman George “Mickey” Leland (TSU), Taraji P. Henson (Howard), Keshia Knight Pulliam (Spelman), Samuel L. Jackson (Morehouse), Spike Lee (Morehouse), Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State), Toni Morrison (Howard), Wanda Sykes (Hampton), Erykah Badu (Grambling), Alice Walker (Spelman), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse), Booker T. Washington (Hampton), Chadwick Boseman (Howard), Thurgood Marshall (Lincoln, Howard), Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State), Walter Payton (Jackson State), Pam Oliver (Florida A&M), Jesse Jackson (North Carolina A&T), Marian Wright Edeliman (Spelman), Ralph Ellison (Tuskegee), Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (Alabama State), Katherine Johnson (West Virginal State), Nikki Giovanni (Fisk)… I could go on forever. But I think you get the point.
9: Diversity – The biggest knock (from some) against HBCUs was the fact that attendees wouldn’t get a taste of the “real” world. That was a “nice/nasty” way of saying, “If all you do is go to school with Blackfolk, you wouldn’t get use to or know how to interact with white folk.” First of all, the list of game-changing folk who have graded the yards of HBCUs across the country begs to differ with that assumption. Second, HBCUs are actually the most diverse campuses in the country. Houston’s flagship HBCU, Texas Southern University, for example, has students from nearly every country on Planet Earth, speaking every language, as well. And TSU, along with Prairie Viw A&M University (PVAMU) and other HBCUs, have become welcoming havens for our Latinx hermanos y hermanas (brothers and sisters), who testify to the supportive atmosphere they experience. Now, if you define “diversity” as one’s level of exposure to white people, you have other issues that go beyond the scope of this article.
8: Class Size – Because most HBCUs are mid-to-small-sized enrollments, students are almost guaranteed smaller, more student-friendly classes. Even at the largest HBCUs, huge classes are the exception, not the rule. And as with any college or university, HBCU or PWI, the class sizes get smaller the further into your educational journey you go. And this class size issue is directly related to the next reason why HBCUs deserve more love.
7: Faculty Investment – My wife started her collegiate journey at Hampton, but ended up earning her degree from TSU (Texas Southern… the real TSU). And the one thing she appreciated most was the level of personal investment professors made in their students. HBCU professors have been known historically for going the extra mile, providing tutoring, mentoring, etc., as well as generously sharing with students (individually and collectively) information on scholarships, internships, etc. that have the potential of altering the trajectory of students’ lives and life opportunities.
6: Way Out of No Way – The impact of HBCU faculty is not only highly commendable, it is miraculous, especially when you consider the fact that HBCUs have always been notoriously and (according to the law) illegally underfunded by state legislatures operating on the myth of white supremacy tip. Being underfunded means HBCUs have less dollars to attract, offer and keep faculty. Yet, HBCU faculty members keep working their wonders, which is just one example of one of HBCUs’ superpowers—making a way out of no way. And each HBCU has its own laundry list of examples that attest to the truth of these words. But I’ll share one. TSU (again, the real TSU) had legendary artist, now the late Dr. John Biggers, heading up their art department. However, because of a lack of dollars, the department didn’t have the supplies necessary for its seniors to complete their final art projects. So, with that “Make a way out of no way” spirit, Biggers had his students paint their final projects on the walls of one of TSU’s buildings (Hannah Hall). That tradition started many decades ago. But to this day, Hannah Hall has become a tourist attraction, bringing art lovers from around the world, to walk its halls and admire the history made because Biggers, for his students and for his program, had to make a way.
5: Bands – C’mon now. Do I have to explain this?
4: Energy – Anyone who has attended an HBCU, as well as those who have not, but have stepped on an HBCU campus or attended an HBCU football or basketball “Classic” or witnessed the wonder of an HBCU “Battle of the Bands” knows that there’s a different kind of energy on an HBCU campus. As stated, I attended a PWI, two actually (the University of Texas and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology), and taught African American Studies at another (the University of Houston). But I was also blessed with the opportunity to spend a decade of my professional life at Texas Southern University. So, I know personally, even from my limited experiences, that there is a whole different feel on an HBCU campus. I can remember working in the office on a Friday and then not only hearing but feeling the Ocean of Soul marching towards the area in front of Granville Sawyer Auditorium, to do their thing at that week’s pep rally. And every time, professionals of all ages (30s – 80s) couldn’t help but get up out of their seats, leave their work behind and move their behinds down towards the pep rally. The energy would not allow them (us) to sit still or continue with business as usual. Those ancestral drums would not stand for it. And if the energy was affecting us old folks like that, I can’t even imagine what it must have been doing to students. Mayne! You can’t put a price on that.
3: Culture – The energy plus diversity plus bands plus faculty investment in students plus tradition (track record), etc. equals a culture of love, acceptance and more. This powerful mix has made many an HBCU a safe haven for its students, faculty and staff. In full transparency, before I started working at TSU, I heard horror stories about the experience, and had folk try to talk me out of even applying. But in my decade there, I found nothing but absolute love. And My friends who are still there, and others at various other HBCUs, including Spelman, Tuskegee, PVAMU, Morehouse and others, have shared similar testimonies.
2: Mission – The general, historical mission of HBCUs has been to uplift the race. Even amid its complicated history involving white philanthropy that wanted only certain subjects taught to Black students, and Black faculty and administrators who fell in line (we can never forget it was Howard University administrators who said “No” to demands by Howard faculty member Dr. Nathan Hare and Howard students who demanded a Black Studies program… and Hare left Howard for the PWI San Francisco State University where the first Black Studies program in the nation was eventually founded in 1968). Still, within that early matrix, and afterward, HBCUs have found a way to add to the mission of uplifting our people. Booker T. Washington literally had Tuskegee’s faculty and students build the campus buildings themselves. And he, along with George Washington Carver, led the movement to educate Black farmers on how to grow new and different crops during a serious drought; outreach work that saved untold numbers of lives and equipped many with the skills to be self-sufficient. But HBCUs have provided that same kind of Tuskegee-led outreach to empower our people both inside and outside the campus’s walls, for decades. And they are still doing it to this day.
1: Opportunity – More specifically, that uplift mission plays itself out by extending opportunities for higher education to those who would often have admission doors closed to them for a myriad of reasons. Now, don’t get me wrong. Not all HBCUs are open-admission campuses. But whether they are or not, most HBCUs I know will go the extra mile to provide a chance for students denied other places to pursue their higher education dreams. EX: A friend of mine was a C student all throughout high school. However, both he and I and everyone else who knew him knew he was way more intelligent than the grades he received would have folk believe. Once he got an opportunity to pursue a college degree, he blossomed. He eventually went on to earn his law degree and a Ph.D. in economics… which led him to a career as an international financier who lives abroad, has traveled the globe, and has afforded him the ability to become an owner of a profitable wine vineyard. So, the HBCU approach of refusing to sleep on the potential of Black students who may not have gotten their educational legs under them at the time of high school graduation is a blessing beyond belief. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.