Historically Black Colleges and Universities have played a vital role in the life of the nation since their earliest days in the 1800s. Although a few, including Cheney State, were founded in the period before Emancipation, many were founded in the years towards the end of the Civil War, and soon thereafter.
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Thus, many of these institutions have had nearly a century and a half to accumulate an admirable record of accomplished alumni/ae. Their fields of endeavor span the earth, and, literally, the heavens. Fortunately, these institutions continue to offer students the tools to go on and achieve in all walks of life.
Perhaps the best-known alumnus of any HBCU is the civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who attended Morehouse College. Other prominent civil rights figures came from Alabama State University, including Ralph David Abernathy, former head of the NAACP, Fred Gray, the lawyer who represented Rosa Parks, and Fred Shuttlesworth, founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Council.
Booker T. Washington, one of the last of the pioneering civil rights leaders to have been born into slavery, attended Hampton University. He went on to lead The Tuskegee Institute as its first president. West Virginia State University produced Leon Sullivan, whose anti-apartheid Sullivan principles changed the way that large institutions looked at ethical investing.
Reverend Sullivan also worked tirelessly for economic development and independence in the African American community, finally succeeding in establishing a black-owned and operated shopping mall in North Philadelphia. More recently, Marian Wright Edelman, an alumna of the all-female Spelman College, turned her activist attentions to the rights and plight of young people and founded the Children’s Defense Fund. For her achievements, she won the MacArthur Prize, the Heinz Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
HBCUs also graduated folks who made history in law, such as Lincoln University alumnus Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice . They also include Norma Holloway Johnson, the Federal judge who handed down the ruling in the probe by Kenneth Starr of President Clinton’s activities, and who graduated from The University of the District of Columbia
Many public servants in other fields are HBCU graduates. Consider, for example, Louis Sullivan, Health and Human Services Secretary, and a Surgeon General – David Satcher, both Morehouse alums. Even Barack Obama, the ultimate lifelong public servant, holds an honorary law degree from Morehouse!
Other alumni/ae of HBCUs have also been prominent in politics, for example, successful businessman and presidential candidate Herman Cain, who graduated from Morehouse College. An additional example of political alumni/ae is Luke Torian, member of the Virginia House of Delegates.
He attended both Howard University and Winston-Salem University, for graduate education. African-American women have thrown their hats in the ring as well. For example, Texas Southern University alumna Barbara Charline Jordan famously and memorably served as her state’s Congresswoman. Augusta Clark, a graduate of West Virginia State University, served on Philadelphia City Council and was a highly effective voice for many positive causes in the city.
Engineering and science are important areas where HBCUs have excelled. These institutions have proved that race is no barrier to brilliance in the quantitative fields. As an inspiring example, that quintessential African American genius scientist, George Washington Carver, was associated with the Tuskegee Institute, as a teacher. This is particularly intriguing because he was so much a self-taught person. A later graduate of that institution, Lonnie Johnson, became a NASA engineer.
However, Johnson subsequently earned millions by inventing the Super Soaker, a deceptively simple toy adored by hordes of happy kids. Women such as Katherine Johnson, of West Virginia State University, also contributed substantially to NASA’s programs in aeronautics and space exploration. NASA even had a HBCU alumnus as its Associate Deputy Administrator in Alabama A&M University graduate Charles Scales.
The arts have been enriched by many HCBU alumni such as Morehouse College’s Langston Hughes, the poet whose work is standard reading now in many English classes. Spike Lee, another Morehouse graduate, has made some of the most thought-provoking films of our era. Cab Calloway was an outstanding orchestra leader from Morehouse, as well as Roscoe Lee Brown (who is, in addition to being a superb actor, an astonishingly sensitive interpreter of the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay).
Tuskegee also gave the world musician Lionel Richie. Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, the powerful novel of black identity that has practically become required reading for students, was a fellow Tuskegee alum.
Spelman College, founded as an all-female institution, is Alice Walker’s alma mater; she wrote the fabulously successful book The Color Purple, which subsequently appeared as a movie. The sports writer and journalist who hosted ESPN First Take and former hosted ESPN’s Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith is a Winston-Salem State University alumnus.
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Moreover, speaking of sports, the HCBU’s have always turned out great athletes. Although there have been a number of basketball players that have gone on to professional success, far more football players have entered the ranks of the pros. One of the best known is Yancey Thigpen, formerly an all-pro player in the NFL.
How did these alumni arrive at the point where their accomplishments are so memorable? What did these high achieving people have in common? The process may have begun far back in their childhoods. Their families and communities supported them in acquiring sound skills in math, reading, and writing.
They applied themselves to their schoolwork, and qualified for college entrance. Then, they and their families made the effort to get them into an HCBU. This may have taken years of planning and effort. In doing so, they chose to take advantage of a unique piece of US history.
These people elected to attend a college that was created with them in mind. They thereby benefitted from the unusual combination of academic rigor and a sheltered environment that HBCUs offer. One great feature of a HBCU is that in the best of circumstances, kids can spend the bulk of their energy on their studies and exploration of potential career choices rather than on defending their African American identity. If students fully exploit this opportunity, there is no limit to their potential for achievement.
These notable alumni/ae took their education and their gifts out into a still, sadly, considerably less welcoming world and they used them to their maximum. This is how these accomplished people made their mark, and how future HBCU alumni/ae can do the same. By supporting these unique institutions, African Americans can continue a proud and effective tradition. The continued health and vibrancy of HBCUs are critical. They provide a choice to students.