Do we take responsibility for HBCUs, or do we allow them to flounder to the point of nonexistence? Do we leave them to the will and largess of government? Do we sit back and say, “Somebody will fix the problem someday”? As I once heard a preacher say, “Somebody is not in the phone book and someday is not on the calendar.” Bill Cosby (Central State), Willie Gary (Shaw), Oprah Winfrey (Morehouse), and others have shown what an individual can do for an HBCU; imagine what our collective efforts could do.
Black people should be the first line of defense for Black schools. Yes, with all of their challenges, they are still our schools, and we must preserve them. If we contributed more, had better relationships with administrators, and promoted HBCUs more, they would be more accountable, responsible, responsive, and financially sound. Yes, they must be good stewards of their financial resources, but we can be partners in that stewardship.
We are quick to romanticize the past and celebrate schools like Wiley College in “The Great Debaters.” We like to visit HBCUs and watch our students “stomp the yard,” high-step in the marching bands, play football and basketball at the CIAA Tournament, and sing in the choirs. We love to see HBCU students perform in stage plays and in spoken word sessions; and those honorary degrees are great, too. Most of all, we love to see our children graduate, many of who would not have been able to were it not for an HBCU. Where is that same love for HBCUs when it comes to our giving back to them?
Well folks, this is what some would call a “Kairos Moment” for Black people. We can save our schools if we have the will to do so. We have the financial resources and we have the intellectual capacity to solve this lingering problem, or at least to be able to come to the rescue when necessary. Our abandoning HBCUs is tantamount to what we did to our Black-owned businesses back in the 1960’s. You don’t have to look too far to see the results of that self-inflicted wound; take a stroll around your neighborhood and start counting the Black stores.
A couple of suggestions. Consider athletics. Top Black athletes overwhelmingly attend non-HBCU schools. They believe they will not make it to the pros if they attend an HBCU, because of small market TV exposure (Thus, no advertising revenue for scholarships) and less competitive conferences. That’s a “Catch 22” situation: They are not in HBCUs because HBCUs don’t have the TV exposure and competition; but HBCUs don’t have the TV exposure and competition because the best athletes are not there.
I wonder how Walter Payton felt about that, or Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, or Avery Johnson, or Doug Williams, or Jerry Rice. How did they get exposure, and how did they make it to the pro ranks? If most of the top-notch Black athletes attended HBCUs the pros would find them no matter where they played.
I know this is quantum leap thinking for some Black folks. However, short of going to HBCUs, Black athletes should hire Black agents, accountants, real estate reps, insurance agents, and other Black businesspersons through whom some of the their dollars could be circulated and maybe find their way to HBCU coffers. Collectively, Black athletes, HBCU grads or not, could also create an endowment for HBCUs.
Entrepreneurs, entertainers, scientists, engineers, doctors, dentists, and you name it, came out of HBCUs. Can you say Oprah? Tom Joyner? Spike Lee? Common? Alice Walker? Toni Morrison? Colbert King (Pulitzer Prize)? Evelynn Hammonds (Physics)? Millions of other HBCU lesser known grads are contributing to this society as a result of their HBCU education. Sounds like a pretty good list for another huge endowment. Non-HBCU alumni, Dr. Dre and Jimmy Lovine gave $70 million, much of which was earned from Black consumers, to USC, where relative few Blacks attend. Dillard University President Walter M. Kimbrough, was absolutely correct to ask, “Why not an HBCU?”
From Howard University, to St. Augustine, to Barber Scotia, our schools need our support—in many forms. Are we going to love them or leave them? Their fate is in our hands, our minds, and in our pockets.
Jim Clingman, founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce, is the nation’s most prolific writer on economic empowerment for Black people. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and can be reached through his Web site, blackonomics.com.