A day after HBCU presidents met with the Trump administration, US Secretary of Education Betsy Devos released this statement:
“Historically black colleges and universities (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 great quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
Secretary Devos’ comments could not be further from the reality of why HBCUs exist today. Her remarks diminish the work of educational pioneers and support the Jim Crow style of “separate but equal” public institutions. Choice implies options – the fact of the matter is HBCUs were founded because blacks had no other options. After enduring a system of slavery which prohibited them from learning to read and write, freed slaves knew full well that education meant advancement. HBCU students did not flourish because they had more options, they did so because that is what they set out to do when no other options were afforded them.
When other colleges and universities denied them admittance, HBCUs welcome newly freed slaves with open arms. “As amended, the Higher Education Act of 1965 defines an HBCU as: “…any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary [of Education] to be a reliable authority as to the quality of training offered or is, according to such an agency or association, making reasonable progress toward accreditation.”
I had the pleasure of attending the first HBCU in the South, Shaw University. Shaw University was founded in 1965 at the conclusion of the Civil War on land donated by Dr. Henry Martin Tupper, after serving as a chaplain and private in the Union Army.
My HBCU experience made me who I am today. From living on my own on the other side the country to understanding the rich heritage and history of my blackness. Every day at Shaw felt like black history month. At Shaw, I walked the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ella Baker; many of the educators who served at Shaw were living relics of black history. For instance, my math professor, Dr. McLouis Clayton, was one of the first members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to participate in lunch counter sit-ins at Woolworth’s in Raleigh. He, as well as the other educators I encountered at Shaw, impressed upon students daily that they needed to take their education serious. If I learned nothing else, I learned that education excellence is both the expectation and inevitability of my heritage.
HBCUs provide all students, regardless of race, an opportunity to develop their skills and talents. These institutions train young people who go on to serve domestically and internationally in the professions as entrepreneurs and the public and private sectors; this is the reality of HBCUs because it is their mission, not because they are another option. I was skeptical of the gathering of HBCU presidents with Trump’s administration but hopeful. After this statement from Secretary Devos, I not sure the meeting was more than a clever photo opportunity and the ensuing executive order a facile attempt at appeasement.