Before Spike Lee was a household name as an acclaimed film director whose movies have made people think, cry, laugh and…yes, think, Lee was one of the hundreds of thousands who attended—and graduated—from an HBCU.
Morehouse College was Lee’s Historically Black College or University of choice, graduating in the late ‘70s.
Lee’s friend, Samuel L. Jackson, followed in the same footsteps, obtaining a B.A. from Morehouse College in Atlanta. Back in those days, Jackson wasn’t chasing “snakes on a plane,” starring in “Pulp Fiction” or playing “Coach Carter”—he was enjoying and loving his time learning with other African American students, in a predominately-Black atmosphere at an HBCU.
Nearly 40 years later, HBCUs are still hot, beaming with Black—and sometimes, White—students who want to have that Black College Experience—you just won’t find it at mainstream colleges like Pitt, Ohio State, or Penn State.
“I think it’s the vibe,” said Aria White, a senior at Allderdice High School. “Even though (HBCUs) are not as diverse, it’s diverse with different Black people.”
White made these comments during Pittsburgh Public Schools’ first “Get on the Bus College Fair,” where representatives from HBCUs were bused to Pittsburgh Obama and Westinghouse high schools, Oct. 11, to meet students where they are—their own schools. HBCUs in attendance included Coppin State, Morgan State, Dillard University, Jackson State, Kentucky State, Wilberforce, Alabama State, Clark Atlanta, and St. Augustine, among others.
“I’m a product of an HBCU (Florida A&M University), we’re the ones that mold, cultivate, embrace our students, give them that cultural experience that they would not experience anywhere else,” said Monika Pugh, director for school counselors at PPS, and the lead organizer for the college fair. “We thought it was important to bring them (the representatives) to the students, because we have to meet them where they are. This is their home. This is where they’re comfortable at, and so this is where we can sell these schools the most is right here,” Pugh said as she watched students peruse the tables full of HBCU representatives inside the Westinghouse school gymnasium.
Kyle McEnheimer, for the most part, spent his entire life in Pittsburgh, graduating from Perry Traditional Academy in 2008. Then he attended Alabama State University in Montgomery, some 840 miles away. “Going down to an HBCU is something I will never regret,” McEnheimer told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “I think it was an experience all African American men and females should experience at least once in their life,” even if it’s just attending a football game, he said. “There’s nothing like an HBCU experience, in my opinion.”
That’s why McEnheimer was among the most vocal advocates of HBCUs as a representative for Alabama State during the PPS college fair. Sporting a leather jacket with Alabama State’s signature Old Gold-colored “A” on the front, the 2013 ASU grad told students like Kiara Gill the benefits of attending an HBCU.
Gill, a senior at Allderdice, told the Courier her schooling has been in “predominately-White schools,” though she labeled Allderdice as “very diverse.” Diverse, yes. But in Gill’s CAS classes (Center of Advanced Studies) at Allderdice, she said she’s “one of three or one of two African Americans in the class, so I would like to see more of my own people getting the same education as me.”
So it looks like Gill’s next step after high school graduation will be an HBCU, where she wants to major in political science, go into law and have her own law firm. “For once I would try to go somewhere,” Gill said, “where I can be encouraged by my other Black fellows and we could all just strive for greatness and achieve together.”
Ebony Pugh, public information officer for Pittsburgh Public Schools, told the Courier that part one of the college fair, held at Obama, featured students not only from Obama, but other PPS students bused in from Brashear, CAPA, Perry and Milliones/University Prep. During part two of the college fair, held at Westinghouse, students were bused there from Allderdice, Carrick and SciTech.
It was here in Pennsylvania where the first Black college was born—Cheyney University, in Cheyney, in 1837. Closer to home—the North Side, to be exact—was Avery College, founded by Charles Avery in 1849 to educate Black students. (The college ceased in 1873). Then came Lincoln University (1854) in Chester County, near Philadelphia. The African Methodist Episcopal Church established Wilberforce University near Dayton, Ohio, two years later.
Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, was the first Black college to be established in the South following the Civil War.
Since then, of course, the number of colleges geared specifically to educate African Americans doubled, tripled, quadrupled. At one point, there were 121 federally-recognized HBCU institutions in the U.S. The number now stands at 101.
According to the Pew Research Center, enrollment at HBCUs reached 327,000 in 2010. That number was steadily on the rise from 1980 (234,000 students), 1990 (257,000), and 2000 (276,000). In 2015, HBCU enrollment was 293,000 students.
Colleges like Howard, Hampton and Grambling State have name recognition, but it’s St. Philip’s College in San Antonio that has the highest HBCU enrollment (11,200 students in 2015). Next highest is North Carolina A&T State in Greensboro (10,900) and Howard in Washington, D.C. (10,000).
The Pew Research Center also reports that in 2015, HBCUs accounted for 15 percent of all Black students who earned a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. (27,000 degrees).
But non-Black students are increasingly finding a home at Black colleges and universities. The Hispanic percentage stands at 4.6 percent in 2015. When Whites, Asians or Pacific Islanders were included, the percentage of those students at all HBCUs was 17 percent in 2015. That number has jumped to 23 percent today, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
There are even some HBCUs that are majority-White—look no further than a few hours south of Pittsburgh, to just outside of Charleston, West Virginia, the home of West Virginia State University. Originally known as the West Virginia Colored Institute, today it sports just a 10 percent Black student population. Bluefield State College, also in West Virginia, has just under a 13 percent Black student population. At one time, Bluefield State College was also known as a “Colored Institute.”
Even at the many HBCUs that are majority-Black, astute college football fans will note that the kickers on the football teams of HBCUs are, for the most part, White or Latino. The New York Times reported this month that North Carolina Central, Delaware State, Grambling State, Alabama A&M and Arkansas-Pine Bluff has kickers (for field goals, extra points or punts) that are non-Black.
And consequently, when the TV is turned on and the NFL games are center-stage, the kickers on the 32 professional teams are, with no doubt, non-Black—except one: Marquette King of the Denver Broncos and formerly of the Oakland Raiders. King was a punter when he played at Fort Valley State University, a Division II HBCU football program.
DeAndre Gordon wasn’t specifically interested in transferring to an HBCU from Community College of Allegheny County, but when he found himself in front of more than 20 HBCU recruiters, he had a change of heart.
Within minutes, he had been accepted to St. Augustine’s University in South Carolina.
“I want to go to a small school that’s artistic where I can complete my marketing studies,” Gordon told the Courier, as the HBCU representatives finished the day with a stop at CCAC’s Allegheny campus for the college students there. “I’m interested in the music industry—but the back end, the production part of the business. So, I’m waiting to hear back from other places I’ve applied. But, getting accepted on the spot—it’s great.”
It might be. St. Augustine’s admissions counselor Samantha Ramirez described it as a liberal arts university known for its Business Management and Technology, and its Public Health schools. It also offers an array of grants that can cut the cost of attending in half—and one of them is specifically for community college students.
“That’s my selling point,” she said. “And based on their transcripts, as you see, I can accept students on the spot. Some of the other recruiters here are able to offers scholarships. I don’t quite have that authority.”
But Ezra Johnson, admissions counselor for Wilberforce University in Ohio, does, and bedecked in an attention-getting “Wakanda Forever” sweatshirt, he did offer scholarships—more than once.
“I gave out four full-ride scholarships today, so far. Those went to students with a 3.8 GPA or higher and either a 26 on the ACT or 1200 on the SAT,” Johnson said. “This is a great event bringing us all together like this…This is our first time here, so part of this trip is about seeing what relationships we can build with CCAC. We’re only three hours away, so this could be a great area for us.”
For Keiasha Boone and Sheila McGee, the HBCU tour was very beneficial. They drove to CCAC from Eastern Gateway Community College in Steubenville, Ohio, for the event. They said their history teacher, Julian Walker, put the trip together.
“I’m interested in studying criminal justice,” said Boone. “To see so many different colleges, It’s great. I’ve never been to anything like this.”
“It’s definitely an experience,” she said. “I’m interested in social work, for people with Multiple Chronic Disease. So, it’s great to see what all these colleges and universities have to offer.”
Walker said he wanted his students to learn about what HBCUs are and what they can offer.
“Some students don’t know about HBCUs and why they were founded,” he said. “Our campus is largely urban and largely African American, and they often need more supports. Well, back in the day HBCUs took people who didn’t have a lot, so they built those structures, and they have stayed true to providing service to underserved populations.”
Christopher Robinson, the associate professor who organized the fair at CCAC, Oct. 11, agreed, as he pulled double duty manning the desk of his alma mater, Jackson State.
“Pennsylvania is home of some of the oldest HBCUs in the nation, and one of the first, Avery College, was right here in Pittsburgh,” he said. “There’s a generational gap where young students are unfamiliar with HBCUs—we’re trying to re-establish that familiarity.”
Editor’s Note: This event was sponsored by the Western Pennsylvania Council of HBCU alumni
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