HBCU Stories | The Enduring Activism of Gramblinite Whitney Houston

– The following Op-Ed appeared in the February 20, 2012 issue of HBCU Digest  –

In 1981, at just eighteen years old, Whitney Houston entered onto the world stage as a model on the cover of Seventeen Magazine at a time when positive images of cocoa-skinned women of color were, at best, scarce. Just four years later, Houston released her self-titled debut album, signaling the beginning of her extraordinary award-winning musical career that spanned almost three decades.

There are numerous accolades lauding her extraordinary talent. The numbers do not lie; twenty-three American Music Awards, sixteen Billboard Music Awards, six Grammy Awards and two Emmy Awards later, Houston’s musical legacy is undeniable. Even so, there were other important dimensions of her life and work—like her commitment to social activism—the details of which, have been all but lost.

As a model during the 1980s, when the promise of freedom and justice in South Africa was made impossible by apartheid, Houston refused to work with any agencies that did business there. She helped bring international attention to the issue in 1988, when she performed at Freedomfest, a concert celebrating the 70th birthday of then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela. In retrospect, taking such a stand may seem easy, but Houston was committed to anti-apartheid at a time when President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher both refused to do so. The event galvanized the movement that pressured the undemocratic South African government to release Mandela less than two years later—twenty-seven years after he was imprisoned.

During the same year of her now-legendary stand against apartheid, Houston received the only honorary degree she was ever awarded, a Doctor of Humane Letters, from the historically black Grambling State University, “Where Everybody is Somebody.” Gramblinities should be proud that they are singular in this respect. If Houston’s personal shortcomings lead to questions about the fittingness of such an honor, members of the Grambling family can proudly reference not only her incredible vocal talent, but also her extensive record of social activism.

Gramblinites should take special pride in Houston’s involvement with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), a relationship dating back as far as 1988, when she performed at Madison Square Garden, generating more than $200,000 for the fund. She also appeared on the 1987 and 1989 Lou Rawls Parade of Stars Telethons and she was honored by the UNCF for consistent giving to the Frederick D. Patterson Scholarship Fund in 1990.

Just one year after being awarded the honorary degree, Houston founded the Whitney Houston Foundation for Children to address a variety of social problems including homelessness as well as to aid children suffering with cancer and AIDS. She even turned her awe-inspiring rendition of the National Anthem at Superbowl XXV in 1991 into an opportunity to raise money for charitable causes not once, but twice. Initially, she donated her royalties from the release to the American Red Cross Gulf Crisis Fund, for which she was named to the American Red Cross Board of Governors. Twenty years later, following September 11, 2011, Houston re-released “The Star Spangled Banner” along with ‘‘America the Beautiful’’ in order to benefit the New York Firefighters 9-11 Disaster Relief Fund and the New York Fraternal Order of Police. This effort raised more than $1 million.

In 1994, long before environmental causes were en vogue, she helped raise over $1 million for indigenous peoples through her participation in Rock for the Rainforest. In 1995, she gave a truly life-saving gift of $110,000 to the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, towards the purchase of much-needed equipment for the new pediatric intensive care unit which was named The Whitney Houston Pediatric Critical Care Unit in her honor. In 1997, Houston’s old elementary school was renamed the Whitney E. Houston Academy of Creative and Performing Arts in her honor. The school now offers arts-focused educational opportunities for its students and the surrounding community. Houston also raised over $300,000 for the Children’s Defense Fund through the HBO concert Classic Whitney, Live from Washington, D.C. the same year.

She supported other worthwhile causes including the Hale and Rainbow houses, the Jubilee 2000 third world debt relief campaign, St. Jude’s Hospital, the Children’s Diabetes Foundation, and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Still, there are many, many more causes to which she pledged her time, talent and treasures. Just last year, she partnered with her sister-in-law manager Patricia Houston to launch a line of soy scented candles to benefit charity.

There is no question that the sweetness of Houston’s voice will live on forever. In the coming weeks, months and years, even her dissenters won’t argue this fact. It is her long-record of activism however, that some will soon forget and others many never know. Gramblinites, and indeed, the entire HBCU community, should laud, preserve and champion this Whitney Houston—the social activist who was truly her brothers’ and sisters’ keeper—for future generations. For if we do, the multi-dimensional star-quality of Whitney Houston as cultural icon and social activist, will shine both on and off the stage, forever.

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A historian and storyteller whose research interests include black higher education and college student activism, DR. CRYSTAL A. deGREGORY is a research fellow at Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Historic Preservation in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. A graduate of the historic Fisk, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee State universities, she is a passionate Historically Black College and University (HBCU) advocate, convener of the HBCUstory Symposium, and editor-in-chief of The Journal of HBCU Research + Culture. Follow her online at @HBCUstorian.