This article first appeared in The Washington Informer.
President Trump recently met with the presidents of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The purpose of the meeting was to discuss his Executive Order moving the HBCU Initiative from under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Education to the White House.
Such a move has been advocated by many with the hope that a more direct line to the Oval Office would be beneficial to these schools, some of which are in grave danger of closing. We simply cannot allow any of our HBCUs to close.
I am a proud HBCU graduate who represents a family lineage of the same. I attended my father’s alma mater, St. Augustine’s University. My uncle and renowned epidemiologist, Donald R. Hopkins, attended Morehouse College and my mother graduated from Bennett College. Growing up, they were my childhood heroes/sheroes, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Arthur Ashe, even though he graduated from UCLA. A significant part of the man that I am can be credited, in part, to attending an HBCU.
As kids, my sisters Angela, Kimberly and I often discussed going to college with our parents. In these discussions, there was a spoken expectation that our parents would cover our undergraduate education and all academic requirements would be met in four years. There was also an unspoken expectation that we would attend an HBCU. Angela and Kimberly respectively graduated from Howard and Hampton Universities.
Morehouse was my first choice for college. After initially receiving a rejection letter due to an incomplete application package, I was accepted. Unfortunately, campus housing was full and all freshmen were required to reside on campus. I then applied and was accepted by Saint Augustine’s. My plan was to attend “St. Aug” for one semester, then transfer to Morehouse College.
By applying to Morehouse, in addition to my uncle and Dr. King being graduates, was a desire to be exposed to the African-American thought leaders of the time. I wanted exposure to Benjamin Mays, Julian Bond, Dorothy Height, Jesse Jackson, Ben Chavis, Andrew Young, Coretta Scott King and others. Unless I attended Morehouse, I did not believe that I would gain such exposure.
I was wrong. What I quickly learned at “St. Aug” was that these political giants visited my campus either on their way to Morehouse or having just left. I quickly fell in love with my alma mater and continued my matriculation there.
At “St. Aug,” for example, I had the opportunity to introduce the former 1972 Democratic nominee for President, Senator George McGovern, at a student government program. It was there that I first learned of and attended a lecture by Minister Louis Farrakhan. At an HBCU, I saw men and women everyday, who looked just like me, successfully running an institution of higher learning. As role models, they undergirded my belief in the ability of African-Americans to reach their dreams.
While in college, the president, Dr. Prezell R. Robinson, taught my father sociology. My professor for Western European Civilization, Dr. Elmer Schwertzman, also taught him that same class. There was a continuity and personal tradition in my education.
It was also at “St. Aug” that I witnessed first-hand how Dr. Schwertzman treated my classmates and me in the same manner, even after his beloved wife was robbed and beaten to death by several African-American youth. Dr. Schwertzman never missed class and was back in the classroom on the very day he laid his wife to rest, teaching us through his tears.
I hope that President Trump is serious about wanting to do more for HBCUs than his predecessors. Former President Obama provided HBCUs with over $4 billion during his presidency. Regardless of party affiliation, that would be a good thing for thousands of African-American students, many of whom are first-generation college attendees, and if true, the White House should be applauded.
However, I have doubts. The presidents of Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, as well as Dillard University, have called the White House meetings unproductive. We have a Secretary of Education who believes HBCUs were the “original pioneers for school choice.” News flash: There was no other choice available for over four million newly freed slaves!
The motto of the United Negro College Fund is, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” This slogan will need to be actualized by the White House and others to ensure the longevity of minority institutions of higher learning.
HBCUs have always been a primary vehicle for the inclusion of our talent in the American workforce. Much work remains.
Austin R. Cooper, Jr., is an experienced government affairs and public relations professional. He is President of Cooper Strategic Affairs, Inc.