Let’s get something straight. This is not an endorsement for Kamala Harris, the Democratic candidate for vice president. If you see it that way, you are wrong.
This is about something very different. This is about the birth and legacy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, places you had to experience to understand.
Harris is a 1986 graduate of Howard University, one of oldest of the 100 HBCUs in America. She is the first vice presidential nominee to graduate from an HBCU.
She is among hundreds of thousands of grads from institutions of higher learning created because of those vile cousins — racism and Jim Crow and poverty.
This column is about young people whose parents pieced together every spare dime they had to raise college tuition for their children, often having to choose just one, to get out of cotton fields and sharecropper houses.
Because of poor state funding to their institutions, HBCU students learned to make do, to be tough as nails and to ignore those chants of “you’re not as good.” They become heads of corporations, business owners, lawyers, doctors, professionals, early political officeholders, especially in the South.
Besides an education, HBCUs afforded young men and women the opportunity to compete in athletics as many predominantly white schools issued edicts that no African Americans would set foot on their athletic fields or courts.
HBCU grads also developed a bond that is witnessed whenever people meet professionally and find out that the other went to an HBCU. It’s just different: The culture. The conversations. The unity of a common goal is just different on a HBCU campus.
For those reasons and more, HBCU grads like me are feeling enormous pride that Harris has been selected as a vice presidential candidate. HBCU, baby. One of us!
What’s more, Harris is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., the first black women’s Greek-letter organization in America. Not only is she repping the AKAs but she is a symbol of the “Divine 9 Greek” organizations. As they say: Google it.
HBCUs provided key members to the civil rights movement including Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. HBCUs like Southern in Baton Rouge, North Carolina A&T and others were part of lunch counter sit-ins and other demonstrations looking for equality.
And there is something else. Being from an HBCU, you have to deal with folk on job sites who see that HBCU school name and immediately believe you are suspect, that maybe you’re not as good as. There is a certain pleasure derived when they are quickly disproven. I’ve been there.
Are HBCUs perfect places? Not at all. Like other schools there are politics and management issues that hurt them. Many are still underfunded. And most HBCUs don’t have deep-pocket donors to get them over the tough times.
Overall enrollment, according to some reports, has dropped by 6,000 over the past 10 years for a number of reasons, some having nothing to do with the schools.
Still, HBCUs, while making up 3% of the nation’s colleges, graduate around 20% of the nation’s Black graduates.
It was good to see recent donations in the tens of millions of dollars to HBCUs by well-heeled donors spurred by the recent focus on conditions of black people resulting from the killing of George Floyd.
Hopefully those donations, the new attention on Black life in America, and now the symbol of Kamala Harris as a vice-presidential candidate will stir new interest in the gold mines that are HBCUs.
This is one of the many reasons why I love my HBCU. As a freshman at Southern, math was my problem. After just two classes, the professor offered this: “I will give you worksheets to take home after every class. Return them completed before the next class. You will not cheat and have anyone else do them because I will check them and talk to you about them. You better not fail me.”
I mean, who does that?
I passed with a “B” that semester. By the way, that instructor was Dolores Spikes, who would later become the president of the Southern University System, and the first woman to head a college system in the United States.
Email Edward Pratt a former newspaperman, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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