Celebrating Historically Black Colleges and Universities
BY PARIS LAWSON | BROADCAST AND DIGITAL REPORTER | OKCTHUNDER.COM
The past 12 months have brought an incredible spotlight to historically Black colleges and universities, none brighter than Jan. 20, when the world watched as a Howard University alumna became the first Black and South Asian American woman sworn in as the nation’s vice president.
That monumental moment is the brightest in a series of high-profile headlines and actions strategically aimed to raise awareness for HBCUs. Among them:
- The NBA and its Players Association are actively discussing a proposed plan to hold the 2021 All-Star Game in Atlanta next month to benefit historically Black colleges and universities and COVID-19 relief, according to multiple reports.
- Makur Maker, whose cousin Thon Maker played for three teams in the NBA, became the first five-star recruit to commit to an HBCU when he announced his decision to attend Howard on July 3. “I need to make the HBCU movement real so that others will follow,” he wrote on his Twitter account.
- NBA players making HBCU gear a wardrobe stable in the Orlando bubble.
“It's definitely long overdue. I feel like HBCUs have been kind of forgotten about for some time are kind of looked at as kind of a secondary form of education,” said Keli White, a corporate partnership activation manager with the Thunder and a graduate of Texas Southern University – an HBCU in Houston.
“I appreciate all the recognition that these schools are getting and I hope that it continues,” she said. "I hope that more people tend to visit and shed light on the success and on the history of these schools because they have a very rich history and a rich origin of how they were started.”
Why is this recent rise in attention on HBCUs so significant? It begins with that history.
The nation’s earliest HBCUs were founded in the late 1800s, post-Civil War, at a time when Black men and women were not granted access to higher education opportunities due to segregation laws. As a response, rather than grant Black students access to white institutions, the federal government created a separate division of institutions specifically for Black students. Today, roughly 100 of such institutions remain including one in Oklahoma -- Langston University, established in 1897.
Many of the great civil rights heroes that we celebrate throughout Black History Month matriculated from an HBCU, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse College), Rep. John Lewis (Fisk University) and Oklahoma’s own civil rights pioneer, Clara Luper (Langston University). Even throughout NBA history, notable names like Earl “The Pearl” Monroe (Winston-Salem State University), Willis Reed (Grambling State University) and Ben Wallace (Virginia Union University) were all products of Black colleges.
“It doesn't matter who you are; we want quality students who are serious about their education and who want to better themselves, and also a better society.”— Dr. Kent J. Smith, President of Langston University
Because of this rich history and notable alumni, those who graduate from an HBCU beam with pride knowing they are among a list of high-achieving, trailblazing individuals who did the same. In the U.S., HBCUs are responsible for a large percentage of the nation’s Black doctors, lawyers and judges; nearly 12.5 percent of the country’s Black CEOs are products of Black colleges.
“When you look at society today, it's one of the reasons quite often you will hear people say that HBCUs are directly responsible for the Black middle class,” said Dr. Kent J. Smith, President of Langston University, the westernmost historically black college in America with campuses in Langston, Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
“Those very important positions in society that tend to lend themselves towards requiring higher education, a large percentage if not the predominant percentage of the makeup of African Americans have attended or graduated from a historically Black college or university in the United States of America.”
Black colleges’ unique combination of minority representation among faculty and staff along with a more intimate classroom setting allow students, particularly minority students, the opportunity to flourish in an environment where their voices are not only heard but celebrated.
“If you speak to a student or a graduate of a historically black college or university, I think the first thing they will tell you is that attending an HBCU affords an opportunity for them to get to know themselves better from an African-American standpoint in the historical construct in a more detailed way that's not traditionally taught in K-through-12 education,” said Dr. Smith.
“A lot of our students had not ever had that opportunity to truly receive an education holistically from people who look like them and understand the struggles that they may or may not have gone through.” Being around high-achieving Black students is exactly what Raynita Mason, the current crown-holder of the Miss Langston title, enjoys the most about attending Langston. Growing up in inner-city Detroit, Mason cherishes her opportunity to be around and be motivated by other like-minded peers who look like her and understand her.
“Just being around Black excellence, there’s no better feeling,” Mason said. “It literally drives you to want to be better. You are constantly watching your peers thrive.”
When Keli White was in the process of selecting a college to attend, she created a short list of criteria she was considering. Growing up in Oklahoma City, she wanted to attend a school where she would be considered more than a number and where she would be seen in a holistic sense for the person she was and the potential she had to offer. While she ultimately decided to attend Texas Southern, White didn’t fully grasp the gravitas of her school’s history and value until she stepped on campus.
“After going there, that was one of the first things that you learn about the school. They have a class that teaches you about the history of the university,” said White. “So, I did definitely gain a greater understanding and a vast amount of knowledge about the university, and really pride for the university.”
White took full advantage of the personalized experience and by the time she graduated, she was no longer the same timid teenager that entered through its doors. She left as a confident and prepared leader ready to take on any opportunity that came her way.
"I hope more people shed light on the success and the history of these schools because they have a very rich history and a rich origin of how they were started.”— Keli White, Texas Southern University graduate
“I feel like Texas Southern really set me up for success because HBCUs just teach us that you have to kind of create your own success out of nowhere and, despite your circumstances, despite your background, you have to learn how to be successful how to be a leader,” she said.
“As I've been a professional in (the NBA), I have encountered other individuals who have gone to other HBCUs who have had the same story. They started at an HBCU and now have this great career working in sports or working in professional basketball.”
Even with such notable testimonies and alumni, the HBCU community still faces several misconceptions to this day. For instance, Dr. Smith has often encountered the fallacy that HBCUs only admit Black students exclusively, which the Langston president says, “can’t be further from the truth.”
“When you look at, for instance Langston University, when we were founded in 1897, even though we were founded as an HBCU and predominantly for African Americans or Blacks who could not obtain another education, we did open the doors and we still are very much open to individuals from all national nationalities, all creeds,” said Dr. Smith.
“It doesn't matter who you are; we want quality students who are serious about their education and who want to better themselves, and also a better society.”
But perhaps the biggest, and most consequential misnomer placed on HBCUs is the idea that they offer a lower quality, second-class education. Dr. Smith simply retorts, “I would beg to differ,” before laying out example after example of why the notion is incorrect, starting with the success rate of Langston’s various doctorate and graduate programs.
“We offer a Doctorate of physical therapy degree and when our students graduate, they have to pass the same national exam that students have to pass within predominantly white institutions,” noted Dr. Smith. “In that particular program, we have many years in a row of 100 percent passage on the first try for our students.”
Beyond the academics, it’s the life beyond the classroom that HBCU alumni tend to recount the most. The vibrant campus life, the brotherhood and sisterhood of Greek organizations along with the lifelong friendships created are all reasons why thousands of alumni return to HBCUs during the fall semester to attend homecoming. Langston’s event draws alumni from all over the country back to its campus to experience the festivities and celebrations of Black achievement.
“I love going back for homecoming … anytime I do go back, it's just a great experience. It's like being at home,” said White. “The atmosphere is electric, you see old friends, you meet new friends, old professors and you’re just constantly reminiscing, laughing and just thinking about the good old days.”
In the 19th century, that student life outside of class was devoted to efforts to help advance the Black community forward. One of the results of this effort was the formation of historically black Greek letter organizations, also known as “Divine 9” sororities and fraternities.
Estee Baskerville, a Thunder marketing coordinator, joined one of these organizations during her time in college – the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated. The Deltas were founded in 1913 by 22 women of Howard University, located in Washington D.C. One of the first major acts of public service by the founding members of the Deltas was participating in the march for Women’s Suffrage. To this day, the organization works to carry that torch of community work and fighting for justice with each chapter around the country.
“Everything that every chapter is rooted in is about helping your community, helping the local community, always making sure that you're finding a way to continue to bring everyone forward,” said Baskerville. “A lot of things that we're still fighting for today for our community, that's what our founders were working towards.”
Similarly, the essence through which HBCUs were founded in the 19th century still lives on to this day – to fill a need for the Black community that couldn’t be offered at predominately white institutions.
After a summer filled with calls for racial and social justice following the death of George Floyd, Black colleges sprang into action. Many student organizations within Langston worked together to register students to vote, walk them to the polls and offer a supportive community for those who needed it the most. Around the country, Divine 9 sororities organized large marches to their polling places.
“2020 was pretty hard on the Black community, but Langston is so awesome and so family-oriented, we come together to see how we can work together to do better in our community,” said Mason. “How can we be the change we want to see?”
For HBCUs, change is taking place. The national stage has opened a space for Black colleges to take the spotlight. With the growing achievements from alumni, with the passage of generations to walk through their halls, the acknowledgement and esteem of each historic institution only grows deeper.
“It's our obligation to keep these institutions thriving. We have to hold a certain pride for all the work they've done to get us to this point and there's still so much work to be done moving forward but we definitely have to be proud of where we are and how we even got to this point to have HBCUs,” said Mason. “You can't help it. You just have to be proud of your HBCU.”
For Mason, the question is no longer, “What is the significance of celebrating HBCUs?” After the proceedings of the past 12 months, the question is now “How could we not?”