Standing Up for Black Colleges

photo credit: Founders Library via photopin (license)
photo credit: Founders Library via photopin (license)
The Yard at Howard University. Photo Credit: Founders Library via photopin (license)

They say a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Well, judging by the comments from several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, President Obama could give a hoot about the financial struggles and subpar graduation rates of some Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

President Obama recently met reps from the CBC (Feb. 10) and did not come away too impressed with the financial records of some and overall status of others, calling for those schools to fall “by the wayside” if improvement wasn’t made, according to  the website Crew of 42, a blog dedicated to the work of the CBC.

The CBC’s First Vice Chair, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) said, “I was concerned about what the President said because it feeds into a narrative about the value of these institutions and whether they are equip to educate our students and what the cost is for doing so,” Rep. Clarke added, according to the website Crew of 42, a blog

“Many of these institutions have not had a maintenance of effort on the part of states or the federal government and over time that wears on their ability to maintain standards or even advance beyond a certain level.  It was very clear that he doesn’t have the same level of appreciation for what these institutions have done and could do in the future given the right support systems,” Rep. Clarke concluded.

Attending a historically black college or university was something I always dreamed of doing when I was a child. My wish was granted when I attended and graduated from Howard University. It is an experience I will never forget.

Whenever I walked across The Yard at Howard University, I always had this sense of wonderment of swelled pride in see so many African Americans debunk the many unfounded myths and stereotypes about  black folks. Howard, like other Historically Black Colleges and Universities, create something that other schools don’t have: a pillar of refuge and self-identification for many black students.

photo credit: Kevin Coles via photopin cc
photo credit: Kevin Coles via photopin cc

All higher institutions of learning are supposed to provide that kind of atmosphere for individuals attending school on campus. I am quite sure that black alumni from USC, UCLA, Princeton, Harvard, Northwestern or other universities can speak very highly on all of the positive things they were and have been able to attain from their respective schools.

I can only speak on what it was like attending an HBCU. And, in the walk of all of the recent negative reports coming out about HBCUs, including a possible shutdown of South Carolina State and President Obama’s less than enthusiastic support for financially struggling black colleges, those schools still have serve a purpose. They still matter.

I had a brother attend an HBCU and see a son go off to Southern University. The message from both genres is that attending an HBCU is a unique experience.

Growing up in a neighborhood in Long Beach, California during the 1970s where I was spat on, chased by grown men, endured constant racist attacks on my family’s house, and called  “nigger” as regularly as milk goes into a cereal bowl, I wondered on many of days about what it would be like to be in an environment where I could be around people who looked like me, talked like me and thought like me.

Sure, Long Beach had its sprinkles of black families in and around the city, but I wanted to see and feel the vibe of a totality of black people within a college framework.

I always heard the name of Howard University being floated in my space early in my childhood and later when I became a young adult. I first got wind about black colleges from both my parents and that kind of sent me in that direction of wanting to attend an HBCU.

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Band members from Hampton University. Photo Credit: 100918-A-5177B008 via photopin (license)

My late father, a Texas native, always had stories to tell about Prairie View A & M, the neighboring black college he grew up near. My mother who grew up in a tiny town called Beatrice, Alabama, had relatives that attended all black schools such as Alabama A & M and Alabama State.

 

Because of segregation back in those days, black students were not afforded the opportunity to go anywhere else except a black college if they wanted to continue to pursue their education. My intrigue about black colleges grew through sports. Doug Williams (Grambling), by winning the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl (1988), ignited another spark about black colleges for me.

And then the more and more I would hear or see affluent African Americans in all types of genres being connected to HBCUs, I found myself getting sold on the notion of attending an HBCU.

What President Obama and other people don’t get is that HBCUs are like a lifeline to the black community, particularly here in California. The UC schools like UCLA don’t really go after black students. Just look at the numbers for the school’s last four freshman class. Oftentimes when black students can’t get into a mainstream school, black colleges  have always been their backup plan.

President Obama wouldn’t know about this or it seems like he really doesn’t care to get it if you listen to comments from another member of the CBC.

“[President Obama] said there were some HBCUs that were not good at graduating students and if they did not improve they’d have to go by the wayside. In other words he didn’t show much empathy for struggling HBCUs. It was like ‘show me the numbers’ and if the numbers aren’t where they need to be, that’s it. It was a somewhat callous view of the unique niche HBCUs fill,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA).

The niche that HBCUs fill can’t always be quantified in money, although it certainly helps. You don’t have to go or attend an HBCU to know you’re black. You can get that from home, the library, the Internet or from your local college. But Howard University and other HBCUs provide is culture, an experience rich in the history of achievement that gets less notice anywhere else.

HBCUs don’t need a specialized department like UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. They are specialized within themselves. Every day is a history lesson. And if you attend an HBCU you will find that out. You learn and come across history in your professors and faculty members. Attending an HBCU a chance to know more about your past, present and future about African Americans  through the arts, taking economic classes or sitting in a history lecture hall.

I fell in love with Howard because I saw myself succeed in the business major, the aspiring dance choreographer, the intellectual thinking of an engineer and working side-by-side in 24/7 cycles with future journalists on the campus paper, The Hilltop. My experience at Howard University helped shaped my outlook and philosophy about life in general. It added more in-depth meaning to who I am as a black man.

It also shook off the wistful lies America has fabricated that we are all lazy, are all thugs, just a bunch of humping monkeys that need to be controlled.

What I saw instead and experienced was the beauty of young people of color reaching and aiming high to achieve and conquer without any type of inhibition to hold them back. I saw the past, enjoyed the present and got a glimpse of the future. The commonality that binds all of us together at Howard and other HBCUs is the continued fight for freedom and equality, whether you earn a degree in journalism or graduate with a diploma in philosophy.

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1105 Articles
Dennis covers the NFL (San Diego Chargers), NBA (Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers), Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) and NCAA sports (USC, UCLA, Long Beach State). As a professional journalist, Dennis has also covered and written on topics such as civil rights, politics and social justice. Dennis is a graduate of Howard University.