This content was initially offered as “The State of the Story: HBCU Relevance is a Losing Proposition,” the closing remarks of the 2014 HBCUstory Symposium, which was held in Washington, D.C. on October 24 + 25 at the Association of Public Land-grant Universities.
Barnard, Wellesley, Smith, Mills and Sweet Briar are women’s colleges; no one asks are they relevant.
Notre Dame, Center, Boston and Kenyon college are the nation’s most religious colleges; but no one asks are they relevant.
University of Phoenix, Ashford and Strayer universities are online colleges; yet, no one asks are they relevant.
The University of California system schools at Los Angeles, Irvine of Riverside are traditionally white schools with large Asian and Asian-American populations; and no one dares asks them are they relevant.
Georgia State, the University of Memphis, Troy and Old Dominion are predominately white schools that boast large African-American student populations; and this makes them even more relevant.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) stand alone—amid incessant attacks to their relevance. And, we, in our naïveté, attempt to answer challenges to our relevance by saying, shouting, insisting, over and over, and over and over, and over and over again, and again, we are relevant.
Let us, never again, attempt to answer a question so obviously rooted in a paradigm that suggests we are somehow less than we could, should, or ought to be because of our culture and heritage.
When someone asks you are HBCUs relevant, do not reply yes. Please tell them no.
Say to them, HBCUs are not merely relevant; HBCUs are exceptional, pioneering, innovative, supportive, and caring. HBCUs have been making a way out of no way since their foundings; and HBCUs, whether their detractors like it or not, are here to stay.
Tell them that HBCUs are doing the lion’s share of the work of educating people in this country who other institutions deem unteachable, unlearnable, and uneducable.
You tell them that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, HBCUs had an economic impact of $10.2 billion in 2001 alone. You tell them that more than 50% of the nation’s black public schools teachers and 70% of the nation’s black dentists earned degrees are HBCUs. You tell them that in this very year, the Florida A&M University College of Law boasts a 72% passing rate for its first time examinees.
You tell them what Howard University alumna Zora Neale Hurston would have told them: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
You tell them the story of Hurston, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, George Washington Carver and Mary McLeod Bethune. Tell them the story of Wilma Rudolph, Althea Gibson, Walter “Sweetness” Payton, Jerry Rice and Michael Strahan. Tell them the story Taraji P. Henson, Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee. You tell them the story of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey and Microsoft Chairman John Thompson. Tell them the story of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nikki Giovanni, Judith Jamison, Phylicia Rashād, Debbie Allen, Ruth Simmons and Johnnetta B. Cole.
You tell them, the story of Beth Madison Howse, Hazo W. Carter, Jr., L.M. Collins, Johnny B. Hodge, Jr., Mary Love and Taronda Spencer.
Tell them my story. Tell them your story. Tell them the story of HBCU greatness. You tell them, the HBCU story.
Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is a graduate of the historic Fisk University ’03. She received her master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Vanderbilt University. She also holds a master of education degree in curriculum and instruction from Tennessee State University, ’14, where she formerly taught in the department of history, geography and political science. A professional historian and passionate HBCU advocate, she is editor-in-chief of the forthcoming The Journal of HBCU Research + Culture. She is also a regular contributor to HBCU Digest, is a co-host of Black Docs radio show, and offers a wide-range of expertise on multiple topics including history, culture, education, black fraternity and sorority life and of course HBCUs. Follow her on twitter at @HBCUstorian, visit her website at www.CrystaldeGregory.com, or contact her via email at cadegregory@HBCUstory.com.