“Why on earth did you go to an HBCU?” is a question I have gotten from White and Black colleagues and students alike. I suppose they feel like someone with a PhD from Stanford should have “set her sights higher.” I almost always have to “set them straight” by explaining that I could have gone to one of the PWI (Predominately White Institutions) that admitted me–University of Pennsylvania (Ivy League), Temple University (Private back when I was a high school student), Bryn Mawr (out on the Mainline of Philly), and Swarthmore (Mainline and elite liberal arts). My smart-mouth answer to Whites who asked the question was, “I didn’t want to live in a room with someone to whom I had to explain my hair!” The more nuanced and carefully thought out response to that question is, “I wanted to go somewhere where I could be surrounded by Black excellence and did not have to mediate all of my interactions through race. I wanted to be in a campus community where I could participate in student government, student organizations, and campus social life. I wanted to be reasonably assured that I’d be asked to dances and events. I wanted to not only be successful (which I had proven I could be in the majority White, highly competitive environment of my high school), I wanted to be significant and I knew the people I met at my HBCU could help me be significant–to matter to the community and make a difference.” And let’s face it…you haven’t “partied like it’s 1999” until you’ve gone to an HBCU football game, homecoming, or Divine 9 Greek Step Show!
People who attended my HBCU during the time I was there went on to star in the NFL (including a Hall of Famer), sit on the Maryland Supreme Court, lead a major religious denomination, and be the first African American to head one of the Federal Reserve Banks. They would have been smart and talented wherever they attended school but something about being in the “cocoon” of a HBCU let us exhale and excel. We recognized that whatever limitations we “thought” we had may have been self imposed. For the chance to live and work with so many amazing people I am beyond grateful. That’s the reason that I am more than an HBCU grad…I am an HBCU alum. I am a life member of the alumni association and I have my HBCU high on my list of charitable giving. I want my university to last long after I am gone.
Without sounding Pollyannish I want to celebrate HBCUs as viable (and perhaps, preferable) choices for “some” students. I realize not all students will benefit nor excel at an HBCU–but not all students benefit or excel at an Ivy League, liberal arts college or major state school. The diversity of post-secondary choices reflects that there are indeed, “different strokes for different folks.” HBCUs serve an important place in our communities. Perhaps not the least of which is to prove, as my grandfather used to say, “that the White man’s ice is not colder!” And, imagine my delight when one of my “White/Latino” graduate students arrived in my classroom here on a major PWI campus with a sweatshirt proudly advertising an HBCU. When I asked if he’d visited the school his response was, “Visited? No…I am an alum of this school!”
Most of the nation’s HBCUs were founded by a group of formerly enslaved Black people who understood that their true legacy would be in providing educational opportunities for the future. They loved us enough to secure our futures. They cared enough to sacrifice. I, for one, am deeply grateful for my experience on the campus of an HBCU. It made a world of difference for me and for a “minute” in my life’s timeline it provided a “soft place to land!”
Stay Black & Smart!