I cannot deny it. The HBCU spirit is in my blood. I grew up loving Historically Black Colleges and Universities before I fully understood their significance. As a child, I lived down the street from Fisk University. After ten years of Catholic school, I only wanted to go to an HBCU. When I told my guidance counselor, she was less than enthusiastic about my decision. She questioned my thought process and plans for the future. I would not be deterred. Attending a historically black college was second nature to me because I hailed from a long legacy of HBCU graduates.
In the mid-1800s, my fifteen year old great, great grandfather, Richard Harris, traveled to New Orleans, to earn enough money to buy his freedom from his father and plantation owner. Three years later, the eighteen year old paid his bill and set out on foot with his brother and mother, headed north. The Harris family eventually settled down in a German settlement called Nashville, Tennessee. Richard learned to how to read from “Ma” Tate and later married her daughter, Lavinia Tate, a Fisk graduate. Lavinia’s sister Minnie Tate was one of the Original Fisk Jubilee Singers, whose angelic melodies introduced the Negro slave spirituals to the world.
In the late 1890’s, he opened the Harris & Son furniture store, one of the few black-owned businesses in Nashville, and became Fisk’s first black Negro trustee. Richard and Lavinia’s first home later became the school’s Music Annex. In 1990, it was renamed The Harris House in honor of my great-great grandfather. His legacy inspired his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great, great grandchildren, nearly fifty descendants, to pursue college degrees at Fisk University.
On my father’s side, my great grandmother Sarah Switzer Young finished the State Normal and Industrial College for Colored Students, later renamed Florida A & M University. Her daughter, Gloria Young followed in her footsteps, graduating from FAMU and marrying her college sweetheart, Dr. Gerald E. Hughes Sr.
My history implored me to bring my own leaf to the family tree. The college acceptance letters rolled in but I still wasn’t sure which school to attend until I visited several campuses on the black college tour.
The minute I set foot on Spelman College’s campus, I knew I was home. There was a warmth and sense of inclusion that made me feel welcomed and embraced. It was as if God whispered in my ear, “This is where you belong.” And I agreed.
When I returned to Maryland, I announced my decision and donned a Spelman College sweatshirt on the last day of high school.
Not everybody approved. The guy seated across from me in homeroom glanced at my sweatshirt and asked, “Why are you going there? You aren’t going to learn anything. All they do is party down there.” WOW! A shadow of hurt darkened my face before I summoned my best comeback. The history of HBCU’s encapsulated my life like a pair of bookends. It was not just a lineage but a legacy to be embraced, honored and continued. One day, I would proudly add my own Spelman College chapter to the existing Fisk and FAMU family record.
On August 14, 1986, I entered Spelman as an incoming freshman student and my parent’s only child. On May 20, 1990, I graduated with honors and a bevy of Spelman sisters. To this day, I am just as enthusiastic about my beloved alma mater as I was 23 years ago, supporting it in every manner possible.
The best reward from my HBCU experience has been the life-long friendships acquired, the education earned and a large dose of black woman confidence that has urged me to take many scary first steps throughout my life.
Whenever asked where I went to school, I proudly announce my Spelman roots before revealing my master’s degree from Northwestern University because my heart and my family history is forever tied to an ongoing HBCU legacy.
Tracey D. Hughes graduated cum laude from Spelman College and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a B.A. in English and M.S. in Integrated Marketing Communications respectively. In addition to completing the executive program at Syracuse University’s Graduate School of Sales & Marketing Management, she is the recipient of the Chicago Association of Black Journalists award and four national Colgate Palmolive awards. A member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Tracey resides in New York. An eleven-year member and newly-ordained deacon at her Brooklyn-based church, Tracey offers her weekly dose of God’s Word and her wit at www.vine2victory.com.