Time For All HBCUs To Tell Their Stories (for real)

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Even before being named as Joe Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris as a presidential candidate put her HBCU credentials out front from the very beginning, including an event at her alma mater, Howard University, after formally announcing her bid to become president. Once she suspended her own campaign and subsequently was named to Biden’s ticket, it seems like every story written about her background included her HBCU pedigree.

That was a great thing!

Howard, also known as the Mecca, is considered the flagship of the HBCU network. With one of the largest enrollments, an annual federal appropriation of over $200M, the largest HBCU endowment at around $700M, and home to some of the most recognizable figures in Black culture, most recently highlighted after the death of alumnus Chadwick Boseman, Howard, along with Spelman and Morehouse are the de facto examples of HBCUs when the news covers this sector. When the HBCU experience conversations include homecomings, football, and bands, the universe expands to include FAMU, North Carolina A&T, Southern and Grambling to name a few.

But with over 100 HBCUs, there are a significant number of institutions that are never covered in mainstream media, never part of a movie or TV cameo, never mentioned at all. You see the frustration from many HBCU alums and supporters who flood social media with complaints that the same few schools seeming get everything — attention, resources, and general exposure.

While Trump mentioned HBCUs anytime he was asked about race (one of his 3 signs that he wasn’t a racist, along with opportunity zones and criminal justice reform), he nor his supporters could engage in any meaningful discussion about HBCUs. They just heard Black and something good and they used that to defend him. But the Biden-Harris administration provides HBCUs, particularly those that are lesser known, a tremendous opportunity to begin to tell stories about their institutions.

And this is not just the job of the folks who work at those institutions. It is everyone’s job- students, faculty, staff, alumni, friends, parents, supporters, scholars — you name it. And the good news is that we can do this for FREE! If we flood social media with news, facts and history about our schools, it provides a greater opportunity for those stories to spread.

I think about my first HBCU position at Albany State University. I ended up there in 2000 because a recent alum, Shaun Harper, recruited me while he was a grad student at Indiana University. He is now one of the nation’s leading scholars on Black men and race, and runs a major center at the University of Southern California. A number of Albany State students during my time there, while still early in their careers, are doing great things.

President Zachary Faison is president of sister HBCU Edward Waters College. Dr. Regina Bradley is a professor at Kennesaw State University who studies Southern hip hop (including a new book on Outkast). Dr. Ontario Wooden is the new provost at Alcorn State University.

Le’Joi Williamson became a civil and magistrate judge in Augusta GA and made history in the process.. And the ASU chief of police when I worked there, alumnus David Perry is now the Chief at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. And

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I spent seven years at Philander Smith College, and I soon came to realize most people have no idea that there are a few giants that came from this small school in Little Rock. The most known of them would be former surgeon general Dr. Joycelyn Elders.

When Barack Obama ran for the presidency, and people learned about Dr. Jeremiah Wright, there were discussions about Black Liberation Theology. The father of the concept was the late Dr. James Cone, a Philander alum. He and his brother Dr. Cecil Wayne Cone, another alumnus, were impressive religious scholars.

And anyone who has used the term “ebonics” has to trace it back to Philanderian Dr. Robert Williams, who recently died at the age of 90. Often viewed as one of the fathers of Black psychology, he was definitely one of the most interesting people I have ever met.

And Dillard University continue to offer its fair share of significant figures. In fact, attorney Michael Jones, a partner with the law firm Kirkland and Ellis, is the lead attorney representing Maryland’s HBCUs in their lawsuit for equal funding. American Express President of Strategic Partnerships Glenda McNeal was recently named the first Black woman to sit on their executive committee.

Joyce Roche led Girls Inc. Carl Stewart recently retired as the chief judge of the consequential 5th circuit court of appeals. And Jericho Brown recently received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry this year.

I’ve always hated attending any HBCU program or workshop where people would say that we just don’t tell our stories enough. I would argue we don’t tell our stories at all. The ascension of Kamala Harris means HBCUs will have a spotlight even greater than the one during this administration, one that arguably presented HBCUs in a deficit position (“I saved them. They were going out of business and I saved them,” said the man who thought $85M funded over 100 schools.)

This is the time for all HBCUs, especially those we never see in mainstream media or popular culture, to aggressively tell their stories. If the stories are good and unique, they will spread. But with all of the free social media platforms, we should see lots of great HBCU stories each and every day.

And if you’re a real HBCU advocate, you’ll spread everyone’s stories. It has been great to share stories about Nikema Williams, the Talladega College alumna who was elected to fill the Georgia congressional seat held by Fisk alumnus John Lewis. If we all make this part of our daily rituals, we can maximize the positive attention Kamala Harris brings to all of our institutions.

We were too quiet while Trump appropriated HBCUs to defend his naked racism and white nationalism, but he did expose the entire national at least to the acronym HBCU. What we do going forward is up to us.

The Prez

Written by

7th president of Dillard University

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