While President Barak Obama has called out HBCU Presidents to play a more active role in global leadership, these leaders should look back to the example set by Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee Institute and their role in recruiting foreign students. By recruiting foreign students at the turn of the century, Washington increased enrollment, created foreign exchange programs and created a pipeline of Tuskegee graduate participation overseas in places like Togo, the Philippines, and the West Indies.
In 1892, the school welcomed its first international student, Sara Jane Lomax. Lomax, a sixteen-year-old female from Liberia, West Africa. From 1898 to 1920 there were 1,000 students hailing from more than twenty-eight states and territories including, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Africa, Barbados, and other foreign countries throughout Asia, the Caribbean and the West Indies. Admission records randomly selected from the spring 1906 to fall of 1907 demonstrate Tuskegee’s propensity for recruiting foreign students.
At least ninety letters were reported as being sent from a myriad of places like, Jamaica, Panama, Trinidad, Grenada, St. Thomas, Guiana, Haiti, British Honduras, Santo Domingo, Sierra Leone, and New Mexico. Of this phenomenon, Booker T. Washington boasted, “it would not be easy to discover any one college or institute that draws to its campus from outside the United States of so many races; or that helps to equip workers of such varied types to go to so large a range of peoples.
Hundreds of foreign students between 1892 and 1920 began pouring in from all over the globe under the leadership of Booker T. Washington. Tuskegee Institute became a central element in missionary, philanthropic, economic and educational development and activity for foreign countries like Haiti, South America, the West Indies and Africa. In his opening address to the 1912 International Conference on the Negro, Washington announced that, “For a number of years, we have had on our grounds a number of student from countries outside the United States… From year to year we have from 100 to 150 students representing foreign countries.”
By the turn of the century, educational programs at Tuskegee disseminated a view that their school, in the age of Jim Crow would shape, for better or for worse, a center for global education.
Secretary of the International missionary council, J. H. Oldham on a visit to Tuskegee in 1921, met five African students, two Ugandans, one South West African and two Liberians. Of his first impression Oldham, recalled, “the striking thing to me is now all these men have an African consciousness; their loyalty is not Liberian or Rhodesian or Gold Coast, but African.” That same year C. H. Clerk and Michael Ansah, two students from the Gold Coast jointly planned the Fourth Annual African Student Union Conference in Tuskegee alongside Nkomo. One of the sessions from the conference highlights the imperial ideology embodied at Tuskegee. A session on “How American Negro students may cooperate with African students” accentuates the African consciousness being inculcated into the diverse student body at Tuskegee.
It is important to recognize the fact that HBCU’s have always played a role in international affairs. Over time, they have moved away from that commitment for a multiplicity of reasons. However, playing a role in global leadership should not be viewed as a new or impossible feat. HBCU’s must look at the example first set by Tuskegee at the turn of the century and from there move forward aggressively into a new global age