As far back as some 90 years ago when my father matriculated at Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, Ohio—the first private HBCU in the country, a school founded before the Civil War by the African Methodist Episcopal Church for the education and uplift of those who sought “freedom” or back many decades ago when my father-in-law George McKenna and his brother Warren began their storied journeys as students at Xavier University and who stayed on at the institution for half-century long careers, teaching and guiding generations that followed, we have been there with the best of them, taking advantage of the educational opportunities that our Black institutions have provided (in a manner that only they could provide).
And nary one of us has needed reminding—we seemed to have known inherently—that it is because of the existence of these Black institutions of higher learning that we are where we are today—operating our own businesses and professional practices, holding responsible positions in corporate America, and occupying positions of leadership, inclined and well prepared to serve our communities because of the gifts of education that have been given us.
My sisters and I started our college experiences at a majority White institution, where the academic offerings were good. While the educational rigor was not lacking, there was a big disconnect between us and the entire campus community, a gulf between faculty with whom we could not identify and us. Black students existed on the periphery of campus life, almost in a protective cocoon-like state. There were even self-segregated areas in the dining hall and student union where we met for a sense of belonging. If truth be told, the complaints of racism and marginalization that Black students at schools from the University of Southern California to the University of Missouri and Yale have recently leveled against their schools are exactly what we were experiencing some 50 years ago.
My parents, in their wisdom and knowledge of the injurious ways of racism and discrimination, reconsidered their earlier decisions and saw to it that we transfer to Black colleges, sending us off to Nashville and Washington, D.C., to be taught and nurtured by professors who shared our history, and to be socialized with others, like ourselves, immersed in the unadulterated lore of our amazing Black heritage—a heritage anchored in aphorisms that reminded us that we had to work “twice as hard” and that we “represented” our community in all we achieved despite the obstacles to our very existence. They wanted us to be well prepared to function, serve and thrive in all worlds—especially our own.
Our experiences at the HBCUs were complete in every respect. Well-prepared professors and broad exposure to Black cultural and historical life were the norm. But it was the “finishing” we received at these institutions of higher learning that bolstered in us the self-confidence, the self-awareness, and the knowledge that we could compete with any. What we know for sure is that it is because there was a Tennessee State, a Howard University, and a Meharry Medical College, we have advanced along our life pathways.
A recent study corroborates that our personal experiences were not unique to us. A Gallup-USA Minority College Report tells that “HBCU grads are more likely to prosper after college than students who graduate from non-HBCUs. Gallup found that HBCU graduates are more likely to have strong relationships, enjoy what they do each day for work, and they are more goal-oriented. However, the biggest gap in well-being among Black graduates, the study tells, is in the financial breakdown. The report found that four in 10 Black HBCU graduates are more likely to thrive financially while fewer than three in 10 Black graduates of other schools can say the same.
Yet, while this study suggests that graduates HBCUs are prospering, the institutions themselves are on precarious footing–faltering, faced with financial difficulties and declining enrollments. That is why we as a community of African Americans nationwide must stand steadfast in support of these schools. Those of us who are their sons and daughters must never forget the role they have played in our growth and development as a people. They have been the bedrock of our families and communities. And we must stand guard, protecting them for future generations. We must be resolute in the arguments and discussions challenging the need for their continued existence. And we must support them financially. Giving back to the institutions that were so important to shaping our success is the truest sign of our love and loyalty to them.
Close to home and in need of immediate attention from our community and our legislators is the threatened future of the Southern University System and Grambling State University, which is a part of the University of Louisiana System. Both of these institutions and their leaders have been dealing with the looming state financial crisis that impacts their funding and—by extension—their programs and resources for students and quite possibly their very existence. No doubt, leaders at these institutions will have difficult decisions to make in the coming weeks. Closure cannot be one of them. And this state’s elected leadership must see to that. We especially expect Black elected leadership to rally in support of these institutions. We must make sure they know that for us in the Black community closure of our colleges and universities is not an option. Already, proposed plans to help lift the state from its budget woes will disproportionately impact poor people and Black people, such as the sales tax hike that has been offered up by the Governor. We cannot risk losing both more of our income to taxes right along with the hope for brighter futures for our children and our communities that are the purpose and promise of HBCUs.