Friday, December 19, 2008

Making the Case for Historically Black Colleges

Some proposed legislation in the state of Georgia is threatening the existence of some unique colleges in the state, HBCU's. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's) are those institutions of higher learning that were established in order to provide collegiate-level education to African Americans during a time when those of African descent were denied the opportunity to be educated at other schools.

Most HBCU's were founded after the Civil War, although a few such as Wilberforce University in Ohio and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania were founded in the 1850's. Some of the more prominent HBCU's in the country are Morehouse and Spelman (Atlanta), Howard (Washington, DC), Fisk (Nashville), Florida A & M, and Hampton (Virginia).

The debate in Georgia presently revolves around differences in opinion as to whether HBCU's still have a place a place in today's integrated and modern society. Seth Harp, a Republican Georgia state senator, feels like HBCU's should merge with more traditional (i.e. predominately white) schools:
"Faced with a $2 billion budget shortfall, a Republican state senator has proposed merging two historically black schools with predominantly white colleges to save money. In the process, he said, he hopes to erase a vestige of Jim Crow-era segregation. "I think we should close this ugly chapter in Georgia's history," Seth Harp, chairman of the state Senate's Higher Education Committee, said Tuesday. Jim Crow refers to state and local laws that mandated the separation of blacks and whites."
Sen. Harp, who is white, is not alone in his thinking. Cynthia Tucker, an editor for the Atlanta Constitution, agrees with him. Tucker, who is African American, has this to say:
"There is no longer good reason for public colleges that are all-white or all-black"
From my perspective there are at least a couple things wrong with the thinking of Ms. Tucker and Mr. Harp. First, I've visited a large number of HBCU's and I've yet to find one that is all-black. Although non-African Americans may be in the minority, they are still welcome to apply and attend each of these colleges. In fact, one of the school that I mentioned, Morehouse, had a white valedictorian this past school year. I don't know why this is considered any different than the vast number of major state institutions where white students make up close to 90% or more of the student population.

Second, Sen. Harp infers that HBCU's are somehow inherently tainted since they were founded when segregation was the law of the land. I disagree. HBCU's have a rich history and have produced some of the greatest leaders of influencers in American history -- Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and Oprah Winfrey are just a few individuals that attended HBCU's.

Of course there have also been notable African Americans that attended state colleges (or no college at all), but for the aforementioned individuals, the HBCU environment shaped them in ways that might have not otherwise taken place. These schools have a history and legacy that should be left in tact. Similar to HBCU's, the black church was formed during a time of intense racism and disenfranchisement of black people. But even in the midst of that environment, a thriving institution was birthed that has given strength, hope and purpose to an untold number of individuals that might not have found it elsewhere.

During the Jim Crow era of American history, blacks were not allowed to attend school with whites because of racism, pure and simple. There is a big difference between the current state of HBCU's and state institutions that prevented African Americans from attending. Many black students choose to attend an HBCU because they feel like that is the best environment for them to learn and become prepared for the "real world" after college. But they also have the option of attending other schools that don't have a historic black majority. That's the point. They have a choice now, whereas in years past, that option wasn't there.

While I'm an advocate of these honorable institutions, the fact remains that these schools have to be economically viable in order to continue on. The state should help financially in a similar way that it does for other state schools. We all know that not all schools are the same nor do they all provide the same level of education. My friends that are Ivy League graduates got a different kind of education than I did at a Mid-American Conference school (although we have better football teams.) :) But, when possible, I think it is to our benefit to continue to support educational institutions that have a historical legacy that future generations can learn from. African American history IS American history and vice versa. Let us not forget that.

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