Watching Southern University’s Aeneas William, Tennessee State University’s Claude Humphrey, and Texas Southern University’s Michael Strahan go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame should have been a bittersweet moment for every enthusiast or advocate of historically Black colleges and universities. On one hand, it was a celebration of our greatest athletes and institutional ambassadors reaching the pinnacle of success in the nation’s most popular sport.
On the other hand, it was a stark reminder of the kind of talent we’ll likely never see again on an HBCU football field; a larger, more cruel reminder that what our institutions used to be has little bearing on what they are to be in the future.
Hall of fame pro football talent from the 1960s through the early 1990’s has not landed one HBCU a top-25 recruit in the last 20 years. And over that same period, hundreds of iconic graduates of HBCUs in a variety of industries have not helped HBCUs to remain as the premier destination for the nation’s top-achieving African-American students.
The fallacy of desegregation, disparate state and federal funding, and a lost presence in Black American pop culture have rendered the HBCU as a second-class institution in the eyes of many Americans, and sadly, most Black Americans. With more choices for higher education, less public funding going to HBCUs than to PWI counterparts, and the most salient elements of HBCU culture being centered around marching bands and protests of civil injustice, the view of today’s HBCU is not unlike it was 70 years ago; a school for those who can’t go elsewhere, or for those who are so pro-Black they are closed to considering larger, whiter institutions.
Racial pride is a funny thing. For some, it stirs a belief in the HBCU mission, and its nurturing and motivation for the modern Black student. For others, racial pride endears an attitude of entitled access; that we are good enough and can perform well at any school, anywhere; and don’t have to be relegated to institutional relics of oppression and underperformance.
Neither perspective is wrong, but both can be harmful when twisted to fit the needs and identity of each individual Black family and Black student. If you love your HBCUs but can’t send it $100 a year, you are keeping your school in neutral when it comes to research and community support. If you think HBCUs are second-class institutions, you’re buying into an incomplete perspective on Black institutions, how and why they select certain leaders, how and why they are funded.
HBCU enrollment, giving numbers and struggle-oriented news headlines don’t lie — the marriage of racial pride and higher education has thoroughly and irrevocably ended. And just because that marriage produced beautiful children — stellar HBCU athletics, the Black American middle class, and Black leaders of civil rights, industry and education — doesn’t mean that the marriage is alive and well.
It’s time for those children to deal with the split and to learn to take care of mom and dad while brokering respect between the two estranged parties. No one person can mobilize this effort; it takes thousands of people making one choice in doing for the HBCU what the government doesn’t have to do; fund it beyond mere operation and subsistent functionality.
We shouldn’t talk about what HBCUs should do to make us want to attend games; we should buy the season tickets and hold institutions accountable. We shouldn’t chide Black students for not having interest in HBCUs, we should begin bring them to campus events and tours starting at the age of five and teach them why HBCUs are valuable.
Waiting for HBCUs to ‘do right’ or ‘do better’ before giving our support only prolongs the ‘do wrong’ culture and resentment of the same.
At the same time, HBCUs must reverse the course of Black flight to PWIs and online colleges with substantive marketing and advertising. They must convince alumni that athletics is the rising tide that floats all boats for institutional profile and regional attraction by engaging them in promotional and administrative think tanks.
And most of all, HBCU leaders cannot make the fatal mistake of believing that emulating PWI processes, structures and culture is the best solution for improving HBCUs. PWI processes were born out of and are maintained by affluence and access; HBCU processes were born out of poverty and necessity. Nothing is worse than driving a campus into despair believing that struggle is a byproduct of a state of mind than a monthly bank statement.
Individuals and institutions have a lot to do in turning our attention and resources inwards in benefit of Black colleges, but overzealous appreciation for what we had before we lost it all is fool’s gold.
We celebrated Aeneas, Claude and Michael over the weekend; now its time to go find the three players who will replace them 20 years from now.