My wife serves as the pre-law director at Dillard University. She wanted to find ways to engage students during the summer, the returners who had their semester cut short as well as incoming students. She decided they would do a book club, and the first book they read was “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson, a natural for students interested in law.
The next book was “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and weeks of protest, Americans sought out books to help them make sense of this moment and to become better prepared for discussions on race. Coates’ text was one that people turned to for guidance.
A lot of people.
My wife went on Amazon to order the books to send to students, and there was a message I had never seen before. It said there was a three-book limit due to demand. A book limit! So she ordered three on her account. Next, she ordered three on my account. Then she went to other booksellers to get their maximums. Finally, she was able to send out over 20 books by going from store to store, like many did to get toilet paper back in April.
A Wall Street Journal story documented that readers were flocking to books about race relations, filling nine of the Top 10 on Barnes & Noble’s website. On the day I learned about the three-book maximum, the top seven books on Amazon were about race relations. The list contained the most talked about titles, but I noticed something else.
Two were written by Ibram Kendi, a graduate of Florida A&M University, an HBCU. Coates attended and writes extensively about Howard University, another HBCU. The classic “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” was written by former Spelman College president Beverly Daniel Tatum. Of the seven books, four were written by people affiliated with HBCUs.
I think about all the times people have asked if HBCUs are relevant today. I think about those who believe majority Black environments are somehow inferior to predominantly White ones. But it is from those spaces, practically free of racism and micro-aggressions, that the women and men providing leadership during this time have emerged.
Even though HBCUs enroll about 9% of all Black students, their graduates play an oversized role as America grapples with the twin pandemics of COVID and racism. HBCU graduates lead major cities that have been epicenters for both: St. Paul, Atlanta, Birmingham, Montgomery, Jackson, and of course New Orleans, where Mayor LaToya Cantrell is a graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana.
HBCU graduates Kamala Harris, Keisha Lance Bottoms and Stacey Abrams have been prominently mentioned as possible vice presidents. U.S. Senate candidates Mike Espy in Mississippi and Raphael Warnock in Georgia are HBCU graduates.
Those leading the fight for families of victims of police brutality include Lee Merritt and Chris Stewart. Among those leading the policy fight in Washington, D.C., are 20 HBCU graduates in the Congressional Black Caucus, including immediate past chair Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, a Morehouse College graduate.
Dillard alum and board chair Mike Jones is fighting for equitable funding for the HBCUs in Maryland. When I see faith leaders addressing issues of justice, Bishop William Barber leads nationally, and Jamal-Harrison Bryant in Atlanta, Freddie Haynes in Dallas, and Joseph Walker in Nashville (a graduate of Southern University) play major roles in their cities; all are HBCU products.
Two of the six Black 2020 Pulitzer Prize winners were educated at HBCUs, with a posthumous award going to investigative journalist and abolitionist Ida B. Wells, who reported on the violence of lynching, and the poetry prize awarded to Dillard’s Jericho Brown, whose work explores loving bodies that are often vulnerable to violence. And as corporate America wrestles with its role in making the country more equitable, HBCU graduates like Dillard’s Glenda McNeal, recently named the first Black woman on the executive committee of American Express, help set the agenda.
As America mourns the passing of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the next generation of HBCU graduates continue to make its mark on the nation in this difficult time. Their prevalence in the public sphere shows the nation that HBCUs are not simply relevant; they are significant. You only need to look at Nikema Williams, the Georgia state senator and Democratic Party chair selected to fill Lewis' seat. Almost 40 years younger, she, like Lewis, is a native of Alabama and moved to Atlanta. And also like Lewis, she is a graduate of an HBCU, Talladega College.
Walter Kimbrough is president of Dillard University.