How the Detroit Pistons recognized Black History Month, the importance of HBCUs  

The sounds of pounding drums filled the Little Caesars Arena concourse on a brisk evening in early February.  

The LCA concourse was transformed into “The Yard” to bring awareness to the importance of Black fraternities and sororities in the Historically Black Colleges and Universities community. More than 1,500 representatives from Black fraternities and sororities, all proudly wearing their Greek letters, crowded “The Yard,” which is typically an outdoor space at HBCUs where students just go to have a good time.

On this evening, the Detroit Pistons provided the space for that good time.

With the helpful assistance of Pistons dancers and mascot Hooper, the Marching Marauders from Central State (Ohio) University moved the crowd, which danced to the band’s beats. Black, red, green and yellow balloons were on display to symbolize pride and unity in honor of Black History Month. The night was the kick-off to the Pistons’ month-long recognition of the month that recognizes the contributions of Black citizens to U.S. history.

Before the game against the Phoenix Suns, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority member Chiara Clayton sang the Black national anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing and the Marching Marauders also performed at halftime. A post-game panel discussion led by former Pistons player Rick Mahorn (who played collegiately at Hampton (Va.) University) highlighted the importance of HBCUs and Black fraternities and sororities.

“I think this night is definitely important because it highlights Black culture and history,” Wayne State Zeta Phi Beta sorority member Bethany Owens said. “It’s nice to see that the Pistons want to highlight Black Greek letter organizations because it’s very important.”  

Pistons Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Stefen Welch said the franchise’s involvement in these opportunities is very important in supporting Detroit’s Black community.   

“There are so many different historic moments that have been curated and cultivated by Black folks and African Americans in the city of Detroit,” Welch said. “We would be doing a disservice to the community if we didn't honor that legacy and that history.” 

‘This is something that brings unity’ 

After the loss to the Suns, fans filled the lower concourse to hear Mahorn and other HBCU and Black fraternity and sorority representatives explain the importance of their experiences.

HBCUs were created in the 19th century to provide undergraduate and graduate levels of education to black youths, who were prevented from attending traditional universities. Today, the universities continue to serve a crucial role in education.  In Michigan, Pensole Lewis College of Business Design is the only HBCU in the state. The Detroit area college re-opened last May.

“I went to all the Jackson (Miss.) State football games as a little fella, and the environment to me was so great when I was young that I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” Hunter said. “I knew it was HBCU for me from Day One and I never faltered from that.” 

The panelists agreed HBCUs and the Black Greek system provided them with a sense of community that has lasted into their professional careers.  

“It really means a lot to me,” York said. “Getting started in the sports industry, having been here for a few months, it definitely makes me feel more welcome. It makes me feel like I have a place, it makes me feel like I have an identity with an organization. It also makes me feel like my identities are celebrated.”

York is a member of Black sorority Sigma Gamma Rho, and the Pistons organization has almost 30 team members from HBCU communities.

“In the Detroit area, there's not really that many Black colleges but it's just the fact that we have people who work in the industry that are a part of Black culture,” Mahorn said. “This is something that brings unity because we may have gone to separate schools, but we're all still in the same brotherhood and sisterhood.” 

Celebrating Detroit youth

To conclude the Pistons’ recognition of Black History Month, the Detroit Pistons Foundation and Mahorn held the 18th annual scholarship contest for high school students. Participants had a chance to showcase talents through a poetry or poster contest.  

Six students were awarded scholarships each ranging from $10,000 to $25,000. Since starting the event in 2005, the Pistons have awarded scholarships to more than 100 students totaling more than $650,000. 

During the competition, students were also given the opportunity to seek career advice from judges. Former Piston Earl Cureton, who served as a judge, said he looks forward to the annual event.

“The creativity is just off the chain,” Cureton said. “The poetry slams just keep getting better each year and for Pistons ownership to invest in something like this for the youth and get the opportunity to win money to get their college careers started really means something.”  

Scholarship winners also joined Pistons players, coaches for a private dinner at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, which is only blocks from the Henry Ford Pistons Performance Center. A private tour of the museum was conducted. Exhibits celebrating Detroit’s role in the rise of Jazz and Tuskegee Airmen were featured at the museum.

“A lot of times when we reflect on history, we forget about the present and future,” Welch said. “We want to cultivate that and bring multitudes of people together to learn, to honor, to celebrate and ultimately, bring people together.”