Grambling State University President Rick Gallot recalled a stab of fear that shot through him when he saw Lee Hall on the campus of the school founded in 1901 to educate Black students forbidden from attending the state’s public institutions.

After all, a special committee is coming to the end of their research of the names on buildings and streets on the LSU campus, looking to see just who these people were and whether their names should continue to be memorialized at the state’s flagship in a new era of diversity after a legacy of racial exclusion.

“I had a brief scare there,” Gallot recalled. “It’s not a matter of being anti-any other race but it is certainly important for people of color to come and be surrounded by buildings that reflect Black excellence.”

He found out the building was named in 1939 after E.A. Lee, not the Confederate general. E.A. Lee was a White superintendent of education in Natchitoches Parish in the 1920s and 1930s who supported Grambling and hired trained teachers from there to work in the then-segregated schools that were having trouble finding qualified educators for Black children.

After years of playing second fiddle to White institutions, historically Black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs, are about to come to prominence now that Joe Biden has been ratified as the next president.

Never before have so many HBCU graduates been tapped to serve in the highest levels of government. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., and the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, soon to be called a U.S. senator once Georgia’s election results from Tuesday are certified, graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Louisiana’s two exemplars chosen to high profile positions are both connected to HBCUs. Later this month Congressman Cedric Richmond, of New Orleans, will become senior adviser to the president and director of the Office of Public Liaison. He graduated from Morehouse. And while Linda Thomas Greenfield, who Biden wants as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was among the first Black students to attend LSU in the early 1970s, she grew up next to Leland College in Baker. She received early lessons in public service from her father who took upon himself the task of keeping up the grounds after the HBCU closed in 1960 for financial reasons. Greenfield still owns property adjacent to Leland.

HBCUs, about 100 of them still existing, were created after the Civil War and during Jim Crow when African Americans were forbidden from the better-funded public institutions, like LSU.

Colleges, in general, and HBCUs, in particular, were suffering financially prior to the COVID-19 pandemic — enrollments declining and tuitions increasing. "In 2015, the share of black students attending HBCUs had dropped to 9% of the total number of Black students enrolled in degree-granting institutions nationwide," says the National Center for Education Statistics.

Often those realities turn into debates about the need for HBCUs in a time where the predominantly White schools accept Black students. Georgia and Tennessee consolidated colleges.

Gallot was a state legislator during the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal and helped fight back an effort to merge some Louisiana HBCUs with predominantly White institutions nearby. U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, then as a state lawmaker from Jefferson, was a leader of that movement. The idea was reasonable, can a state with only 4.6 million people afford so many institutions of higher learning?

As Grambling’s chief salesman, Gallot first sally is the university’s unique academic offerings, like the state’s only bachelor’s degrees in cybersecurity or cloud computing. But this interview was taking place Wednesday as Gallot was watching on television a violent crowd of White insurgents, some of whom waved Confederate battle flags, rampaged through the U.S. Capitol hoping to halt the ratification of the states’ certified Electoral College ballots that would make Biden president-elect.

“The other thing that is so in the spotlight right now as I am looking at these protests going on in Washington and the racial division that has been promoted by this president: Students want to feel like they are attending schools where they will be celebrated and not just tolerated,” Gallot said.

“But for this environment would a Kamala Harris been able to do at USC (the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles) what she did at Howard? And to become the successful lawyer that she was, a district attorney (in San Francisco) and attorney general of California and U.S. Senator? There’s a certain level of confidence that also comes with being in an environment where you look around and see people who look like you and know they are interested in your success, not wondering who didn’t get a spot in the class because you did,” Gallot said.


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.