How many HBCU alumni have ever been asked, “Aren’t you segregating yourself by going to one of those all black schools?” How many of you who chose not to attend an HBCU balked at the opportunity to attend because a guidance counselor, mentor or advisor “advised” you that going to a choice HBCU would diminish your chances at post graduate success because “HBCUs do not represent the real world?” These are important questions resulting from an incomplete understanding of what HBCUs represent and offer their students. As much as advocates of these institutions want to brush off these questions as biased, ignorant or even racist, we must engage in an honest discourse, dispelling any myth that proponents of Black colleges perpetuate self-segregation or end up underprepared in corporate settings.
These are not new questions. In 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois published in my opinion one of his most important works, Black Reconstruction, later that year he continued his hot streak of publications by issuing an article entitled, “Does the Negro need Separate Schools?” In this thought-provoking essay, Du Bois outlined his views on the role of Black colleges in American society and whether he believed they were relevant or a cause of the past. Although this article was written decades ago, his points still resonates with us today, providing an important analysis as to why these schools are vital to providing a platform for future African American success. Here are a few excerpts:
The question which I am discussing is: Are these separate schools and institutions needed? And the answer, to my mind, is perfectly clear. They are needed just so far as they are necessary for the proper education of the Negro race. The proper education of any people includes sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil; knowledge on the part of the teacher, not simply of the individual taught, but of his surroundings and background, and the history of his class and group; such contact between pupils, and between teacher and pupil, on the basis of perfect social equality, as will increase this sympathy and knowledge.
This point is incredibly important and remains true today. It is not to say that only Black professors should teach Black students, however, there is something psychologically reassuring about seeing someone who looks like you successfully leading a class. See Boyce Watkins essays “Nearly Half of All Black College Students Have Never Had a Black Professor” and “Harvard Admits Record Number of Black Students: But What About the Faculty?” Personally, having gone to both an HBCU and a PWI, I can admit, there are certain things I could go to professors about while at Hampton or NCCU, that I am reluctant to share at my current institution.
Du Bois also foreshadowed the existence of Black Colleges in a “post-racial” society.
It is of course fashionable and popular to deny this; to try to deceive ourselves into thinking that race prejudice in the United States across the Color Line is gradually softening and that slowly but surely we are coming to the time when racial animosities and class lines will be so obliterated that separate schools will be anachronisms.
Educational opportunities for African Americans were pretty grim in 1935, however, in 2011 how much different are they really? Yes, we are able to gain admission into the Harvards and Yales, Yes, relatively more African Americans are attending Colleges now than in 1935, however, when compared to the rest of America, African Americans still lag behind in graduation rates, retention rates, are disproportionately underrepresented, have a harder time paying for school, and graduate owing way more than their white counterparts.
Du Bois commented, I am no fool; and I know that race prejudice in the United States today is such that most Negroes cannot receive proper education in white institutions. If the public schools of Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans and Jacksonville were thrown open to all races tomorrow, the education that colored children would get in them would be worse than pitable. As only Du Bois could describe it, he eerily wrote, “Negroes are admitted but not welcomed.”
However, Du Bois also challenged the African American community to provide a superior and engaged academic and social community.
As it is today, American Negroes almost universally disparage their own schools. They look down upon them; they often treat the Negro teachers in them with contempt; they refuse to work for their adequate support; and they refuse to join public movements to increase their efficiency. If Negroes could conceive that Negroes could establish schools quite as good as or even superior to white schools; if Negro colleges were of equal grade in accomplishment and in scientific work with white colleges; then separation would be a passing incident and not a permanent evil; but as long as American Negroes believe that their race is constitutionally and permanently inferior to white people, they necessarily disbelieve in every possible Negro Institution.
Du Bois really put the pressure on the Black community, we need to be asking ourselves and the leaders of our institutions today these same sets of questions:
Beyond this, lies the deeper, broader fact. If the American Negro really believed in himself; if he believed that Negro teachers can educate children according to the best standards of modern training; that his schools were properly housed and equipped; that his colleges be supplied with scholarship and research funds; and he would be far more interested in the efficiency of these institutions of learning, than in forcing himself into other institutions where he is not wanted.
Du Bois concluded with this:
Does the Negro need separate schools? God knows he does… Theoretically, the Negro needs neither segregated schools nor mixed schools. What he needs is Education. What he must remember is that there is no magic, either in mixed schools or in segregated schools. A mixed school with poor and unsympathetic teachers, with hostile public opinion, and no teaching of truth concerning black folk, is bad. A segregated school with ignorant placeholders, inadequate wretched housing, is equally bad.
Attending an HBCU may not place students in a setting accurately depicting American demographics. However, schools like Howard, Spelman, NCCU, Morehouse, Florida A & M, Tennessee State, Hampton and so many other HBCUs instill confidence by teaching us our history and by providing environments of like minded African Americans in an academic and intellectually invigorating social environment. The value of this environment cannot be measured by statistics. If schools like the aforementioned are providing a superior educational experience then we must support them with all our might. At the same token, we cannot get mad when we lose students to PWIs when certain HBCUs underperform. It is up to us to prove to the world why we are relevant, the ball is in our court.