On March 2, 1867, President Andrew Johnson approved a congressional enactment that chartered the Howard University in the District of Columbia. I dedicate this piece to my alma mater and to the 104 other historically Black colleges and universities in the U.S.
My parents graduated from historically Black universities. My grandmother and great-grandmother attended the Alcorn State University laboratory school and subsequently earned their baccalaureate degrees from the undergraduate college. A host of my aunts, uncles, cousins and friends graced the hallowed halls of schools such as Dillard, Fisk, Grambling, North Carolina A&T and Shaw. I often reflect on my childhood and remember the warm memories I had at Alcorn’s homecomings. I recall being anxious to visit Howard, Clark Atlanta, and Morehouse during my junior year of high school. I was ecstatic when Hampton became the first school to send me a college acceptance letter. From a daily and practical point of view, two HBCU graduates continue to provide food, shelter and clothing for my sister and me.
Admittedly, as the time drew near for me to select a university, I found myself torn between Emory and Howard. The beauty of the former’s campus left an indelible mark on my mind. The resources and prestige certainly didn’t hurt. I announced my intent to attend Howard in March 2009, but the thought of Emory lingered. In mid-April, I made the final decision. I knew that I wanted to continue in the strong tradition that had been paved by my forebears, so I sent the enrollment deposit to Howard. I felt honored to be able to uphold such a legacy.
At this point, I must supplement my personal story with some historical context. Save a few exceptions, such as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, a good number of historically Black universities were born during the Reconstruction era. The Civil War Amendments abolished chattel slavery, extended the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses to state governments, and granted the right to vote to those who had previously been enslaved. Members of the African Diaspora were not permitted to read or write during the antebellum period, and the newly bestowed post-Civil War rights created a first-time opportunity for education and social advancement. Historically Black colleges and universities were commissioned to fulfill this new purpose. Nearly 150 years after many historically Black colleges and universities were founded, the pillars of social justice and equality continue to guide their missions.
From a personal vantage point, Howard provided myriad opportunities for me to discern my purpose. I grew academically and spiritually in a community of international scholars. While I was a college student, I journeyed to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s Fiftieth Anniversary Conference in Raleigh-Durham, studied abroad in South Africa and led a service trip to Baltimore. I watched my colleagues flourish in student councils, social organizations, community service initiatives and internships. I established life-long friendships with people who are now pursuing careers in business, government, education, law and medicine. My four years passed swiftly, and I turned my tassel with immense gratitude when the day appointed itself.
A rainy day in June 2013 stands out with particular clarity in my memory. My degree had been conferred a little over a month earlier, and I had never been more proud of my HBCU. On my way home from work, I got caught in a torrential downpour and sought shelter under the awning of a building near U Street. I scrolled down my Facebook news feed to pass the time, and an article caught my attention. I followed the link and was dismayed to see that it concerned a leaked letter written by the Vice-Chairwoman of Howard’s Board of Trustees. Citing fiscal mismanagement, the letter asserted that the university would not exist in three years if drastic measures were not taken. In the following months, the bad press continued. A credit downgrading, a staff downsizing and the abrupt resignation of the president are just a few examples of the increasingly negative media portrayal of Howard in the latter months of 2013.
These isolated events do not reflect the campus that nurtured me for four years. When I think of Howard, I imagine First Lady Michelle Obama addressing students and encouraging participation in study abroad programs. I imagine the upper quadrangle, more commonly known as the Yard, filled with an infectious positive spirit on the first day of spring. I imagine the convergence of brilliant minds from nearly all fifty states and numerous countries around the globe. I imagine California Attorney General Kamala Harris delivering an inspiring message at the 145th Charter Day Convocation. I imagine political science students studying Bunche and Foucault, psychology students studying Freud and Fanon, and English students studying Faulkner and Morrison. These imaginative thoughts coincide with my collegiate reality.
While I was an undergraduate student, I would sometimes run into classmates who were frustrated by the administrative processes of the school. Any HBCU graduate will likely be able to share a less-than-favorable story about their alma mater’s financial aid or student accounts office, but that’s the beauty of the HBCU. Through the numerous forms of adversity they face, historically Black colleges and universities continue to persevere and produce exemplary graduates. No institution of higher learning is perfect, but historically Black colleges and universities have accepted and executed the challenge with which they have been tasked.
In recent months, grievances articulated by Black college students have continued to catch my attention. These voices emanate from the campuses of elite universities like UCLA and Michigan. The concerns voiced by these students reaffirm my belief in the necessity of historically Black colleges and universities. The HBCU creates a space in which a student can express his or her individualism while immersed in a supportive and collegial environment.
Historically Black colleges and universities are deeply intertwined in the fabric of the American narrative. They serve as beacons of hope and incubators of intellectual curiosity. They instill confidence and promote leadership. They foster innovative research and produce esteemed professionals. They cultivate a passion for service and a commitment to altruism. If I am blessed to have children, I hope they will choose to embark upon the same effort I have to preserve the formidable legacy of historically Black colleges and universities. Until that time comes, I will continue to advocate for these schools, support them financially and laud their contributions to the national and global communities. I hope you will too.
– Andrew Hairston