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HBCUs Are Not Second-class Institutions

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The newest social media controversy involves Deion Sanders, $5 million and the resurgence of the PWI vs. HBCU debate.  

Coach Prime Time has found himself on the wrong side of a lot of the commentary for accepting a job offer from the University of Colorado for $5 million after having coached at Jackson State University, an HBCU in Mississippi, for two years, leaving a program and its athletes feeling deserted. 

Many people feel betrayed by Sanders, whether they went to Jackson State or even an HBCU, for that matter. This felt like another reminder that HBCUs are not considered on par with PWI. But they are not, and they serve different functions. The latter half of my childhood was spent in a mostly white suburb outside of Orlando. There was an average of two Black children in all my academic classes from fourth grade until I graduated. While there were very few Black students that I knew, by default, I had only known of two students who were to attend an HBCU. One had graduated two years prior. 

My mother moved us into a neighborhood where she toggled between survival and ignoring the things she had to survive. What we traded for nicer living conditions came with a haze of racism that you couldn’t always see, but you knew it was there. 

Last month, Tennessee lawmaker Todd Gardenhire caused a controversy of his own by noting his displeasure of the unfairness to other schools that HBCUs, TSU in particular, were recruiting too many students, leaving a dearth at other schools, most specifically the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. The problem is that he’s not alone in what his comments infer, that HBCUs are the consolation prize for Black students academically and in athletics, and gifted Black students shouldn’t waste their talents there. After college, many of the close friendships I’ve built have been with people who attended an HBCU, FAMU in particular, and I’m here to tell you, they live really great lives. They are extremely accomplished, and the difference between them and me is that they weren’t told that their access to their dreams was limited, whether explicitly or not. 

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Growing up as a minority in a Black neighborhood is not the same as growing up as a minority in a white one, and many times my excellence was treated as an achievement despite my Blackness and not because of it. While my college had a huge Black population, more than most HBCUs, in fact, I still only had one Black teacher. She was the only academic teacher I ever had that was Black, other than in pre-school. Fortunately, at least for me anyway, I had her for several classes due to her being the department chair for my major. She saw me in ways other teachers, save one, hadn’t. There was a particular stretch one semester when I was going through a tough time in my personal life. She never penalized me for having a rough day. I truly feel that if I had had more teachers like her, especially in a space of independence but extreme vulnerability like college, I would have been more emotionally connected to myself and my goals. 

I’m sure having grown up somewhat detached from my Blackness, I recognize that going to an HBCU would have been a cultural shock for me initially. Still, I think it would have wholly benefited me to be around Black excellence that was just excellent. An excellence that was its own default.

HBCUs hold power. 

While they were once the only option of education for Black students, integrating predominately white schools saw some students wanting to access opportunities they felt isolated from HBCUs. HBCUs were originally primarily for studying agriculture or educating future teachers. They are interwoven into the dynamic history that is Black America, with many Black families’ legacies being the thread. They are also where most Black fraternities and sororities started, and eventually, chapters opened on PWI campuses. Howard University was the home to the first chapters of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, Omega Psi Phi and Phi Beta Sigma; Iota Phi Theta was founded at Morgan State, another HBCU. The Divine Nine fraternities and sororities have such a rich cultural hold on Blackness that they became the standard for Black Greek life at PWIs. PWIs aren’t a Carte Blanche to a world of white acceptance and perks; they absolutely come with racial violence and harassment. These schools are predominately white everywhere except for the sports teams. 

Why are HBCUs not allowed to have that same star power? Why do great football careers rarely, if ever, have HBCUs as part of the storyline? 

If Nick Cannon has his way, the B in HBCU will be for biracial and maybe their need won’t be as great as it is today, but HBCUs are not just some hood you leave behind once you’ve made it. The people I know who went to HBCUs, FAMU especially, have a particular pride in their school that feels more like community. It feels like their school gave them something more than to put in a frame in their office; it gave them another home. 

This was the first year I had ever gone back to my school’s homecoming since attending, and that was because I was paid to be there.I did enjoy myself, though. Have you ever seen an HBCU homecoming? Exactly. 

HBCUs are not second-class institutions, and neither are their students. 

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