I had the opportunity to read Alonzo Kittrels’ recent Back in the Day feature regarding historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), in general, and the exceptional list of graduates who attended these outstanding institutions, in particular. For me, I was both happy and sad. Happy to see many of these American leaders finally get their due; sad because I, like many others, was not given the option of choosing a HBCU.
For the record, be advised that I had an amazing college experience at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). I met lifelong friends, a spouse who has allowed me to hang around for nearly 40 years, achieving fraternity brothers, and so much more. I had the opportunity to play Division I basketball and participate at the highest levels of university leadership, including a few where I was the first African American. Penn State, for me, was a very pleasant experience; for many of my peers, not so much.
I graduated from Clairton High School, a few miles southeast of Pittsburgh, in 1976. Like so many others, I was the first in my family to have the opportunity to attend college (sort of, my oldest brother attended Pitt for football spring training, but withdrew sometime during his first semester).
Because I was an above average student in math, my counselors insisted that I consider engineering. They further stated I would have the privilege of attending a majority institution; HBCUs were not to be considered. For one, these schools did not have the quality engineering programs I could get from a school like Penn State or Carnegie Mellon; and two, why would I even consider such schools when I had the opportunity to attend a “renowned” institution of higher education.
They went on to remind me not many African Americans had this option, and I was fortunate to be graduating at a time where these schools were welcoming Black students, even offering them money to attend. Yes, I was hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray, run amok. I didn’t land on Penn State, Penn State landed on me!
The interesting part of this is I, and I believe many others during that time, believed them. We bought into the hype. I truly thought that I had been given a gift that many others were not fortunate to receive. Of course, we knew that most of our historic leaders had gone to HBCUs, but surely, they would have chosen a PWI (predominately white institution) if they had the choice!
As we live, we learn. It was not until much later in life that I realized how much I had been had. In the early part of my business career, I noticed that the vice president of marketing was a Howard graduate, the director of operations was from Hampton, my two “upwardly mobile” colleagues (the company’s description of us) were from Cheyney and Tuskegee. Of course, sprinkled therein, were graduates of Temple, Penn State, Pitt, and Penn. The Education Lie was finally coming to the surface. HBCUs mattered!
It may come as no surprise to most that many/most Blacks who graduated from PWIs have never attended a homecoming at their alma mater, but have enjoyed homecomings at Cheyney, North Carolina Central, Lincoln, Howard, FAMU, Delaware State, Virginia Union and the list goes on.
Additionally, we have attended countless classics (Bayou, Circle City, Southern Heritage, Lone Star) and perhaps never missed a CIAA tournament. It took us a while to understand why many at HBCUs did not come to the football game until halftime, until we saw The Bands. Nothing defines more, or separates most, an HBCU halftime from a PWI.
Some would say that we may be in the heyday of HBCU recognition. With the recent election of Kamala Harris (Howard) as vice president of the United States, the unprecedented leadership of Stacey Abrams (Spelman) in the Georgia elections, and the Rev. Raphael Warnock (Morehouse) becoming the first Black senator from that state, HBCUs are certainly as visible, and maybe accepted, as they have ever been. But lest we forget those who blazed the trails for us in year’s past…King, Marshall, Alexander, DuBois, Morrison, Lewis, Hughes and even more recently Winfrey, Graves, Washington, Lee, Rashad, Allen, and Jackson. HBCUs, without a doubt, matter!
I currently serve as the regional development director for UNCF (the United Negro College Fund), the mission of which is to help needy students get to and through college while also supporting our 37-member private HBCUs to continue to operate. I often wonder why God has put me where he has today. I surmise, it is absolutely to spend the rest of my life making up for not having attended a HBCU.