HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) are important to me for many reasons. Situated in the heart of the Black community in my hometown is Bethune Cookman University. Growing up as a child, I was constantly reminded that the late Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune founded the college with $1.50, five little girls, and faith in God. So much of my early exposure to college life was through my participation in events on BCU’s campus. Through my involvement in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, I grew spiritually. A part of that growth took place during YPD (Young People Department’s) trips to Edward Waters College, an HBCU, located in Jacksonville, Florida. I looked forward to my trips to Edward Waters and getting a chance to meet with young people from all around the state of Florida. In fact, it was through these meetings that I learned about the other HBCUs that were owned by the AME church, to include the oldest privately owned HBCU, Wilberforce University. Through that exposure, I recognized the benefits of having a network of higher education institutions. When I think about my professional accomplishments, I cannot think about them without reflecting on the place that most significantly impacted my personal and professional growth, Hampton University. It is my “home by the sea, where I made lifelong friends, developed an appreciation for a standard of excellence, and was equipped with an education for life.
So recently, when I saw an article that referenced a quote by the Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, it immediately caught my attention. The following reflects her statement.
“Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have done this since their founding. They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They show that the systems wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution. HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. This success has shown that more options help students flourish.” (Betsy Devos)
Immediately, there were reactions to the statement, many of which emphasized how Secretary Devos got it all wrong. Below is an example of one such response.
“But HBCUs were not created because the 4 million newly freed blacks were unhappy with the choices they had. They were created because they had no choices at all. That is not just a very important distinction, it is profoundly important. Why? Because, if one does not understand the crippling and extended horrors of slavery, then how can one really understand the subsequent history and struggle of African Americans, or the current necessities and imperatives that grow out of that history and struggle?” (John Wilson, Jr., Morehouse President and former Executive Director, White House HBCU Initiatives)
Dr. Wilson makes a valid point which presents the other side of the story. Indeed, it is profoundly important for everyone to have clarity about “what” precipitated the creation of our HBCUs. The lack of acknowledgement of slavery and its impact on African Americans by many continues to be the “elephant in the room” that prevents our country from making the best decisions for all of its people. Now to the other side, there is also another profoundly important message. Because African Americans did not have equal access to education institutions, our ancestors didn’t just focus on convincing others to allow us access to their institutions; some took it upon themselves to focus on access by creating their own institutions. That choice made it possible for many African Americans to have access to education, lead a better quality of life, and make an impact upon the world. I am reminded of that solution every time I drive by Bethune Cookman University and see it today, now sprawling across 85 acres and providing access to over 3500 students. I am reminded of that choice every time I tell someone of my professional growth that started at Hampton University which afforded me the opportunity to become the first African American to receive a doctor of philosophy degree in speech-language pathology from Memphis University.
There are two sides to the story. Let’s hold people accountable for having an accurate understanding of the root causes of our problems AND let’s all utilize the intellect and resources we each have to create solutions. I learned from a former boss, “you control what you own.” Regardless of the story, there is always two sides. According to Lonnie Keene, each side is shaped by the individual’s perspective, exposure, and time frame of reference.