Recently, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been getting considerable attention. Much of this attention comes from the recent ascension of their graduates to significant roles in our society — particularly Vice President Kamala Harris, a Howard University graduate.
The importance of Black institutions is something that Black folk have recognized since the founding of Cheyney University, the oldest Black college/university, on Feb. 25, 1837. So today, I shall highlight some of our HBCU graduates from the past that helped to make our country a better place — not only for Black Americans but for all Americans. Join with me and salute HBCU graduates who were successful but failed to receive adequate recognition as graduates of Black institutions, back in the day.
Positive recognition of HBCUs was not always the case. You may recall that these institutions were “put down” and viewed as inferior to white schools — not just by whites but by some of our own brothers and sisters. In planning where you would attend college, many can recall being dissuaded by white guidance counselors from applying to Black institutions.
As a young 20-something graduate of Delaware State College (now a university) I can vividly recall attending a federal management training workshop where I sat through a presentation by a “Negro,” whom I will not call Black or African American, as he viciously vilified Black colleges. As the only Black in the session, I was hurt by his words. I was young and had not acquired the ammunition to challenge him. As I sat with my head hung low, a white participant whispered to me that the speaker was misinformed because his agency had several outstanding HBCU graduates working in financial positions.
In spite of what spilled out of this presenter’s mouth, I felt that I had received a great education, was exposed to professors that were nurturing, established longstanding friendships, and even developed a relationship with a young lady who eventually became my wife.
Over the years, I came to view Black institutions in an even more positive light as I learned of the many contributions HBCU graduates have made to our society.
One of my earliest memories was learning about two Lincoln University graduates who went on to become outstanding leaders in their home countries of Africa: Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria and Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana.
Another who caught my attention and validated the impact of HBCUs was Thurgood Marshall — also a Lincoln University undergraduate, Howard Law School graduate and a Supreme Court associate justice.
But it was during the civil rights movement when I really understood the power of HBCUs. That’s when I realized the educational background of our Black leaders of those times. For instance: Martin Luther King Jr., Morehouse College; civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy, Alabama State University; Executive Director of the National Urban League Whitney Young, Kentucky State University; civil rights activist Medgar Evers, Alcorn State University; Opportunities Industrialization Center founder Leon H. Sullivan, West Virginia State University; and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, North Carolina A&T.
Others from back in the day include: Booker T. Washington, Hampton Institute, who was an activist and founder of Tuskegee Institute; Ida B. Wells, Rust College, journalist and civil rights activist; Langston Hughes, Lincoln University, writer and social activist; Douglas Wilder, Virginia Union University and Howard University Law School, governor; W. Wilson Goode Jr., Morgan State University, first Black mayor of Philadelphia; Willie E. Gary, Shaw University, millionaire attorney; Earl Graves, Morgan State University, magazine publisher; Ed Bradley, Cheyney University, “60 Minutes” correspondent; John Chaney, Bethune-Cookman University, basketball coach; Robert W. Bogle, Cheyney University, Philadelphia Tribune publisher; W.E.B. Du Bois, Fisk University, sociologist, historian and activist; Samuel Dewitt Proctor, Virginia State University, minister, educator and humanitarian; Ralph Ellison, Tuskegee Institute, scholar, educator, literary critic and author; David Satcher, Morehouse College, surgeon general under President William Clinton; Oprah Winfrey, Tennessee State University, television personality and billionaire businesswoman; Reginald Lewis, Virginia State University, millionaire businessman; Nikki Giovanni, Fisk University, writer, activist and educator; Spike Lee, Morehouse College, actor, movie producer and director; Samuel L. Jackson, Morehouse College, actor; E. Washington Rhodes, Lincoln University, Philadelphia Tribune publisher; Keith Jennings, Fisk University, human rights and democratic governance specialist; Toni Morrison, Howard University, author; Gladys Knight, Shaw University, recording artist; Stokely Carmichael, Howard University, civil rights activist; Amiri Baraka, Howard University, poet and civil rights activist; Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Shaw University School of Divinity, minister and congressman; Marion Barry, LeMoyne-Owens College, Washington, D.C. mayor; and William Hart, Delaware State University, first Black mayor of East Orange, N.J.
Then there was Ronald McNair, astronaut and physicist who has received considerable attention for earning a doctorate degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with little or no attention paid to his undergraduate degree from North Carolina A&T University.
I have barely scratched the surface. These successes are directly related to the education and character building received at HBCUs. As parents and students become more aware of the success of HBCUs, we are hearing how top high school scholars and highly recruited athletes are committing to HBCUs. I hope that the same level of financial support that white institutions receive will be duplicated in Black institutions.
As you read or hear about these HBCU graduates, I ask you to remember and remind those that are not as informed that the power of HBCUs is not new and they were quite significant in developing leaders, back in the day.