HBCUs Were Not ‘Choices,’ But A Great Opportunity

A Personal Perspective

The Trump White House made quite a spectacle of having a large group of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) presidents visit earlier this week to mark the end of Black History Month.

If one wants to be cynical, one could say that was nothing more than a great photo op for the commander-in-chief, in other words, Donald Trump trying to prove that he cares about black higher education. He’s just trying to trump President Barack Obama, who was not one to grandstand when he invited different segments of leaders to the White House.
Over the course of his eight years in office, President Obama reportedly allocated $4 billion to shore up HBCUs. Trump brings them in for optics. Deciding not to lose out on an opportunity to sound knowledgeable about black education, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s new secretary of education, let loose with a doozy.

“HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” said DeVos, Trump’s controversial choice to lead one of the most important agencies in his administration.

One has to wonder where all these clueless people are coming from. HBCU’s offer competitive education, but they were not established as “another choice.” They were the only choice because blacks were not being given entrance into white institutions – and certainly not in large enough numbers to accommodate our needs.

HBCUs were established to educate the descendants of slaves. Many were established by Christian denominations and some, including the venerable Morehouse College, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s undergraduate alma mater, started life as theological seminaries.

But in recent decades, HBCUs have struggled due to the many choices African American students have today, most notably, public universities across the country, including New York’s own SUNY and CUNY colleges.

Now Trump is promising to kill the fatted calf to benefit HBCUs. But before those presidents pull out their forks, let’s see the calf on the table first. Trump is signing yet another executive order—ah, the power of the executive order—to “make HBCUs “a priority.”

This order promises to take HBCUs from under the auspices of the Department of Education and directly under the purview of the White House. The college presidents are said to be feeling tricked. They were told they would be meeting with Vice President Mike Pence and related cabinet members. Instead, they found themselves in an awkward photo op with the president himself.

In 2012, I went on an HBCU college tour with the You Can Go to College Committee, a local non-profit with a purpose to help students prepare for college. We started at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, then to Morgan State, Hampton University, Virginia State, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta and Spellman, Johnson C. Smith University, Bennett College and Shaw University, all three in North Carolina.

It was an amazing opportunity to learn about this great part of African American history and culture. It remains one of the most culturally significant things I have ever done. These colleges need and deserve the support of the federal government and one can only hope that what Trump did this week was more than just a dog and pony show for Black History Month.

Some of the most profound leaders, artists and intellectuals of the 20th century were educated at HBCUs: MLK, Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson, Jr., Langston Hughes, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Marian Wright Edelman and a host of African and Caribbean leaders. We need to preserve these educational institutions as viable choices for higher education.

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