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BRIA AND BRANDI SPARROW, celebrated for their accomplishments as Wilberforce University graduates at an Aug. 27 event at the Grayson Center. (Photos by Gail Manker)

Bria and Brandi showed ‘faith’ in Wilberforce through university’s tough times

Historically-Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, were created to give Black Americans the chance for the higher education they’d long been denied.

While a few HBCUs had been established before or slightly after the Civil War, the exclusionary Jim Crow laws in the South only ignited the growth of many more HBCUs. Now, 53 years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there are over 100 active HBCUs in the United States. Some HBCUs have deep religious roots, others are single-gender institutions, but each institution comes with its own history.

MARISA SPARROW is one proud mother of fraternal twins Bria and Brandi. In this photo, she is shown with Brandi.

For some young people, the environment of an HBCU offers a safe haven in the era of Eric Garner and President Trump. For others, the reputation of some HBCUs as affordable is a draw.

For Pittsburgh native twins Bria and Brandi Sparrow, Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio is not just a school, but a part of their family’s history. While they were growing up, their grandmother, Ladora Jamison, would frequently tell the twins stories of her experience and gift them with Wilberforce merchandise.

For the 23-year-olds who, at first, didn’t even attend the same high school, attending the same university was a coincidence. Although coincidental, the sisters appreciated the support having the other sibling there offered.

“I felt like more secure in a way, because I didn’t feel like so alone,” Brandi said. “Just the fact that I had her there just made me feel better about being there around people I didn’t know because I didn’t know anyone, so I was happy that I at least had my twin.”

Simply being at the university together was not the only coincidence; the twins would also share a dorm room. “We weren’t supposed to be roommates,” Bria admitted. “At first we requested not to be. But they kind of messed up and Brandi had a room, but I didn’t and they were just like, ‘you can room with your sister’ and I’m like, ‘uh, alright’ and it just ended up working out.”

For Bria, her grandmother’s stories of Wilberforce sold her on the university. Brandi already knew Wilberforce was the place for her after attending a dance on campus prior to her first semester.

LADORA JAMISON, a Wilberforce University graduate, with granddaughter Bria during the WU Bulldogs’ graduation ceremony in 2016.

The Sparrows lived together for most their entire college career, but things weren’t always smooth sailing. At one point feeling discouraged due to so many friends transferring, Bria, as a sophomore, nearly transferred herself.

Wilberforce, which is the country’s oldest private HBCU, had fallen on hard times and needed to prove to the Higher Learning Commission that it could address its past problems and deserved to keep its accreditation. Losing it could have spelled the end of the institution’s 160-year run. Bria told the New Pittsburgh Courier that students, including herself, would march, hold rallies, and stand with the university through its trials and tribulations.

“I had a friend who started out at Wilberforce and ended up transferring to Johnson C. Smith University (in Charlotte),” Bria said. “Enrollment had dropped a lot, and people were leaving because they were nervous about if they were actually going to get degrees. I had applied to Morgan State (in Baltimore) and got accepted,” Bria revealed.

“But I had faith in Wilberforce, and I knew that I didn’t want to disappoint my grandmother. What’s the point of just trying to support Black schools if we’re all going to run when there’s an issue?”

Thus, Bria stayed at “The WU.” Brandi stayed, too. They both felt their time at Wilberforce was well-spent. Bria studied mass communication and journalism, and graduated in May 2016. Brandi studied political science, graduated December 2016, and walked with her classmates in the May 2017 ceremony.

Bria admitted that oftentimes, the fraternal twins—Brandi is 15 minutes older—wanted to do things separately. “We didn’t even attend the same middle school,” Bria said. But somehow, the two sisters graduated from the same high school, Penn Hills, in 2012, the same university, Wilberforce, and in less than a week, will be working at the same place, UPMC.

Both plan to attend graduate school, possibly Pitt or Carlow. And both recommend an HBCU, a place that brings African Americans together, to current high school students.

“They’d definitely never regret it, whether they attend Wilberforce or any other HBCU. It’s definitely something where you’re going to be filled with memories,” Brandi said. “You’ll learn so much about yourself and it brings out your roots and as an African American, you’ll learn where we came from.”


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