If I had to choose a favorite HBCU motto, outside of Howard University’s motto, it would be a tie between Fayetteville State University and The University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Their mottos, respectively, are “res non verba” and “facta, non verba.”
These statements, loosely, translate to “actions, not words.” There is a history of “doing” on our side.
In the eyes of many “doing” is the only thing that makes us valuable as consumers, as producers, as citizens. Anything short of that paints black life as a burden on America’s prosperity, past and future.
Because of this, black institutions are key to helping black people define the narrative of American contribution―beyond giving our lives and bodies to build this country without receiving equitable recognition as full citizens, and without political or social scrutiny. Freedom Fighters like Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Kwame Toure, Bayard Rustin, and Amelia Boynton Robinson are the individual examples of the movement and memory of our American presence.
Not surprisingly, they are all products of historically black colleges and universities. And for as much as history resonates with organizations like the NAACP and Urban League, and will resonate with movements like Black Lives Matter, all that these groups have ever hoped to achieve has been built and exported by voices and activism like theirs, honed at HBCU campuses for more than 150 years.
The Historically Black College or University is the Black Advocacy Organization that we have been waiting for―the one that has always been here to transform rebellion into research, outreach and training. The blueprint of Black American advocacy, we tend to believe, is in how many people can we get in one space to be angry about one common issue.
But history lives on our campuses. Advocacy is found in the careers which break down barriers in industry, policy and society. That has long been, and continues to be the work of the HBCU – regardless of size, selectivity or geography and constantly emphasizing our responsibility to bring light to the systemic disparities in all aspects of our society.
Some older black folk who are outside of the Millennial or Generation X age range often critique their junior generations in that there is no clear leader to champion the causes that groups like the NAACP, Urban League, and others fight. Maybe they are right; there is no one individual or one organization which gives us talking points for cultural insurrection.
But the mission of the HBCU has delivered marching orders and won many wars, several of which we never even considered to be battlegrounds.
Cities like Birmingham, AL and St. Paul, MN recently elected new mayors – Randall Woodfin and Melvin Carter; Morehouse College, and Florida A&M University alumni, respectively. They won because of knowledge gained, networks built, ideologies shaped by black colleges ―and the hope is that they will power those American communities to more equitably provide opportunity for all of their citizens.
This is what so many people tend to miss about black people, but moreso about black organizations. The mission of making the American dream worth seizing for black people benefits all people, and when our best and brightest are able to secure space as leaders, all who are willing to listen can find their lives enriched by timeless HBCU lessons.
“Veritas et Utilitas.” – Howard University
“Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve.” – Bethune Cookman University & Winston Salem State University.
“Growing the Future, Leading the World.” – Morgan State University
“I’ll Find a Way or Make One; Culture for Service.” – Clark Atlanta University
“Challenging minds, changing lives.” – Jackson State University
“Enter to learn, go forth and serve.” – Delaware State University
“Service is sovereignty.”- Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University
“Nurturing potential…transforming lives.” – Coppin State University
“Building a better world.” – Virginia State University
“Education for Service.” – Langston University
Of course, this also means that our individual and institutional purpose is not above critique or exacting accountability. We must require work that matters. We must demand that our actions are the primary support system for our struggle, rather than the foundation for others, or a passive byproduct of the effects of racism and discrimination.
Who are you? What is your role? What is it that you can contribute to your institution or the entire body of HBCUs? If you are reading this article and you find yourself struggling to answer these questions: you do not need any other validation outside of what is in your heart and what you feel your institution needs best from your point of view. Our institutions have a duty, a moral obligation, to be beacons of light, to create access and to present opportunities to those who need it most. Your gift is necessary.
Exacting accountability requires thorough examination. For our purposes, there are many organizations that exist. There are people, HBCU alumni and current students, who need to be held accountable. We should be responsible for creating more than viral content for social media and gathering “likes.” Historically, the HBCU is a laboratory of democracy―laboratories of insurrection. Our student government organizations and programs like the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities HBCU All-Star Ambassador program should reflect our collective history. Every year, in each student government administration and in each Ambassador Cohort, there is a decision to make. Our peers who occupy these positions are our primary connection to our college and university leadership and our various HBCU stakeholders and those who invest and financially support our HBCU stakeholder organizations.
As long as the historically black college or university exists, so shall we continue to create and assist leaders who advocate for us. So shall we continue to vigorously defend those who need defending and insist on addressing the systemic ills and disparities that so many of us have beaten―it is our collective responsibility.
Failing to meet our collective responsibility is not an option.