The Soul of a Nation: The Past, Present, and Continuing Importance of The Historically Black College and University
Updated September 1, 2021 • 6 min read
America's welfare is forever connected to the past, present, and future of the Historically Black College and University (HBCU).
As we move through time and space, it is apparent that America's Post-Trump reckoning is largely attributed to scores of African Americans who viewed voting in last fall's election as an obligatory act.
For this population, the 2020 Presidential election was tethered to generational ramifications. Fearing the worst, Blacks saw the nation regressing to a time when Blacks were considered chattel and women were considered to be second class citizens valued for their aesthetics and not for their numerous contributions to the betterment of society.
This potential future is unacceptable. Considering the generational ramifications produced from the toils of their forefathers, their contributions personify America's soul.
Many within this faction are college-educated. Specifically, this sect is largely HBCU-educated. Therefore, America's soul is located within the HBCU. This is evident in the fact that HBCUs produce 25% of all Black graduates with science technology, engineering, and mathematic degrees.
Furthermore, America's welfare is forever connected to the past, present, and future of the Historically Black College and University. She is as important now — if not more so — as she ever was.
The History of HBCUs
To consider the HBCU evolution, one must study its history to properly evaluate its magnitude.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities are institutions founded before 1964 that aimed to educate former slaves and free Blacks — who were once legally denied a right to education — to provide them with skills and trades that would improve the quality of their lives. This training procured generations of educators, members of the clergy, and community leaders.
Initially, HBCUs manifested from philanthropists and African American churches, with assistance from the American Missionary Association, the Freedmen's Bureau, and the second Morrill Act of 1890. Specifically, the second Morrill Act of 1890 mandated that states provide land grants for Black colleges if African American students could not attend predominantly white institutions. Due to many of these states being former members of the Confederacy, numerous Historically Black Colleges and Universities exist in the American South.
75% of all Black Americans holding a doctorate degree, 75% of all Black officers in the armed forces, and 80% of all Black federal judges received HBCU undergraduate training.
The HBCU's ramifications include her teachings, and these lessons also prove to be generational. Consequently, HBCU graduates — imbued with institutional pride — make sure to impart the lessons they learned via these sentinels of higher learning to their descendants.
This is evident in the Department of Education's report that 75% of all Black Americans holding a doctorate degree, 75% of all Black officers in the armed forces, and 80% of all Black federal judges received HBCU undergraduate training.
It is not uncommon to discover HBCUs with multiple generations of families comprising their annals of successful alumni. This is especially true when one considers the limited options Blacks possessed in efforts to rise out of their social class. For those seeking education, funding and enrollment opportunities were minimal. Families maintained their own pipelines to specific schools to create generational wealth and a legacy.
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The Relevance of HBCUs Today
Cheyney University of Pennsylvania was the first official HBCU in the United States.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities are as important today as they were when Cheyney was established in 1837. For example, HBCUs are now destination points for international students due to their inclusivity and diverse faculty and staff.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 1 in 4 students enrolled at HBCUs are non-Black; this population matriculates to the HBCU for its strong academic programs, inclusive academic advising, and avant-garde course offerings and majors.
Impact on Culture
HBCUs are also important as American culture largely derives from African American culture, and this culture partially emerges from the Historically Black College and University.
The HBCU is the epicenter of African American culture. On these campuses, students validate popular culture entities and lend their authenticity — sans credit — to socioeconomic movements. Simply stated, once a product, service, or establishment is vetted by the HBCU, it is deemed credible globally.
This is apparent as companies — including but not limited to Nike, The North Face, Timberland, and Ralph Lauren — are buoyed by African American and HBCU support; these companies, their intellectual properties, and their products became synonymous with the HBCU and are status symbols for those attempting to replicate an African American "cool factor" intertwined with social consciousness and academic achievement.
Additionally, Historically Black Colleges are also significant as these establishments provide a nurturing environment for at-risk students unaware of matriculation opportunities. Hence, low-income and/or first-generation college students may perceive college to be an impractical undertaking.
HBCU students are reminded daily that their faculty once sat where they sat and were proud to occupy the seat; they are also reminded that their goals and aspirations are attainable, as many HBCU faculty and staff faced and successfully negotiated similar hardships on their respective graduation treks.
In some instances, this derives from difficulties associated with becoming first-generation college students. For example, students of all demographics and socioeconomic backgrounds require paragons for guidance on their unique journeys. Yet, if there was not emphasis placed on academics and the discipline associated with scholarly research by parents or guardians, dependents may not see education as a viable pathway to cultural enlightenment, financial security, or social status. Instead, this demographic may be more concerned with status symbols, as these goods are on display and cherished within their working-class environments.
In fact, the HBCU is still important today as it is notorious for its stable environment and faculty and staff members who play active roles in their students' holistic development. Despite challenges related to being first-generation college students, many excel within the structured environment. This is evident as African American students notoriously perform for their faculty, whereas their white counterparts traditionally perform for their parents.
Representation matters. HBCU students are reminded daily that their faculty once sat where they sat and were proud to occupy the seat; they are also reminded that their goals and aspirations are attainable, as many HBCU faculty and staff faced and successfully negotiated similar hardships on their respective graduation treks. Consequently, HBCUs are as important today as ever.
HBCUs in 2020
Considering 2020's largest social justice issues, Historically Black Colleges and Universities are especially needed for their refuge. This is especially true as last fall, Trump supporters targeted Cheyney University for a protest imbued with racial and homophobic rage.
Blacks and other people of color are victims of discrimination within the realms of voting rights, healthcare, income gap, equality, hunger and food insecurity, and racial injustice. 2020 saw many campuses — HBCUs and PWIs [predominantly white institutions] alike — shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic; instruction moved to virtual platforms while faculty, staff, and students adjusted.
Complicating the transition, cases of gun violence and systemic racism dominated global news. Specifically, the murders of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd — along with numerous other cases of police brutality and racially motivated homicide swept to media's back pages — provided unhealthy and traumatic distractions from the notorious pandemic.
Whereas HBCUs previously existed as safe havens from the country's injustices, they were temporarily not a refuge. As numerous companies and entities quickly attempted to align themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement in efforts to protect their net profit margins, curriculum changes began to manifest within Historically Black Colleges and University curriculums.
Innovations at HBCUs
Faculty — like students — want to have a say in what types of courses are created and offered. No longer are they comfortable with the current pedagogical and political status quo. For example, Virginia State University's Dr. Cheryl E. Mango created the nation's first course on the history of the Historically Black College and University.
VSU's HIST 349 is a critical analysis reading and writing class that delves into a range of historical and cultural topics within HBCUs. This is especially important as the HBCU has been an inclusive environment since its 1837 inception; those beyond the HBCU's scope may be unaware of such. Therefore, it is worthy of academic study.
Noting pedagogical advancements propelled by current events, Johnson C Smith University continues to develop innovative courses. JCSU's spring 2021 semester course offering features ENG 296: Rapsody's "EVE" and Hip-Hop Feminist Literature. There, students apply feminist and critical theory. The special topics course explores Rapsody's 2019 release "EVE" through the lens of hip-hop feminist literature. In addition, students will examine hip-hop's history to engage with albums recorded by women emcees.
As a result, the type of curriculum development displayed by both Virginia State University and Johnson C Smith University is timely; the courses reflect specific students' desires and interests. Considering the times, they would like to have a say in what courses are offered and they want majors that address 21st-century social issues.
This is especially true following a summer of protests and call for reform. As society evolves, so do opportunities and the job market. Diversity in course offerings makes for preparation for diverse 21st-century employment opportunities.
Reflecting upon the past, today's HBCU student is mindful of the sacrifices made by the ancestors who preceded them; their oblations built a nation from infancy to the world power it is today. While many of their progenitors toiled without bearing the fruit of their labor, they died with faith that their work would not be in vain.
Today's HBCU and its scholars are that fruit. Finally, a Post-Trump America has a soul. That soul is still located at the center of the Historically Black College and University. Without her, there is no America.
Jemayne Lavar King, PhD
Dr. King is an Assistant Professor of English at Johnson C. Smith University, a 2017 TEDx speaker finalist, and published author. See his full bio here.
Header Image Credit: Photoroyalty | Shutterstock
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