Black to the Future: Black History Month and the Role of HBCUs

Image of a Black To The Future Logo for Black History Month.

Photo courtesy of Tiers monde.

In 1926, Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History declared that the second week of February would be Negro History Week. Woodson chose this week, in particular, because it contained the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In 1976, the U.S. Government officially recognized ‘Negro History Week’ as Black History Month. Through this recognition, the country has celebrated the remarkable contributions and continued excellence of African Americans during February.

HBCU’s put the “History” in Black History Month

HBCUs have played an invaluable and instrumental role in not only Black history but American history. Many of the persons who are often celebrated during this time – Martin Luther King Jr., Toni Morrison, Jesse Jackson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alice Walker, Mary McLeod Bethune, and many more – hold within their long list of accomplishments being HBCU alumni. Not only have HBCUs produced history making alumni, but they have been instrumental in creating history themselves from having student organizations such at Howard University’s chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. participate in the women’s suffrage march in 1913 or the Greensboro Four of North Carolina A&T kicking off the historic sit-ins in Greensboro, NC in 1960. Though these and many more historic events find their roots and connections at HBCUs, there are still many questions and much ignorance surrounding the contributions of these institutions both in the past and in the present. Though the “H” in HBCUs stands for historically, the greatness of HBCUs’ stories does not lie solely in the past—HBCUs are making history today.

Examples of HBCUs That Continue to Make History

There are a number of institutions that are actively engaging in the HBCU legacy of shaping the community, being agents of social justice, and exemplifying leadership. Paul Quinn College has become a prominent voice in the Dallas community regarding food deserts and inequities in nutrition for low-income families with their “We Over Me” farm. Spelman College is leading the way in HBCUs’ discussions of LGBT issues with their recent national LGBT conference. Florida A & M University is serving as ground zero for the Dream Defenders, a group focused on training and organizing youth and students in nonviolent civil disobedience, civic engagement, and direct action to create real change in their communities. Xavier University continues to produce the largest number of African American students who go on to attend medical schools across the country, and this accomplishment is not just in relation to their HBCU counterparts but across all institutional types.

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Telling “Our Story” Beyond Black History Month

It is important that HBCUs with great programs and initiatives are highlighted and given their time in the limelight —  beyond Black History Month. In an age where there are arguments, fueled by a lack of knowledge or a wealth of racism regarding the relevancy of HBCUs, diligence must be taken to give contemporary context to the significance of these institutions. Although Black History Month is focused on African American contributions, HBCUs’ innovations and successes are far too often missing from popular conversations. In fact, it seems there is an overwhelmingly lopsided representation of the challenges that HBCUs face in national media stories. And though media must be brought to task for this negative, deficit-focused approach, it is not solely responsible. HBCU researchers, advocates, leadership, and alumni must also carry the mantle to shed light on the great work of HBCUs, and not just HBCUs’ historical contributions but those of today as well.

HBCUs Provide a Voice for the Community At-large

The success of HBCUs is important to more than the HBCU community, more than the Minority Serving Institution community, and more than the higher education community. Their successes are important to the totality of society. Paul Quinn College’s fight against the placement of a landfill has given voice to more than their students but the whole south Dallas community. Xavier University and Morgan State University’s production of future African American doctors and engineers diversifies not only the professions but also leads to answers to questions that pertain to communities of color overall. FAMU and their Dream Defenders have garnered the attention of government officials and legislators in the state of Florida, forcing a serious discussion and legislation to repeal the “Stand Your Ground” law that has contributed to the senseless deaths of and lack of justice for young Black men such as Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.

As we celebrate Black History Month and the role that HBCUs have played, let us remember that the story has not yet ended. Every day HBCUs and their students continue to write new chapters that contribute to the great legacy of these institutions. We must make it our duty to read these chapters, not quietly to ourselves, but aloud for all to hear.

About the Authors

Felecia Commodore, Penn Center for Minority Serving InstitutionsFelecia Commodore is a third year PhD student in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. She has a background working as an admissions counselor and academic advisor at Trinity University, Washington, D.C. and University of Maryland, College Park respectively. Felecia obtained an M.A. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Maryland, College Park, MD and a B.S. in Marketing with a minor in Sociology from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. Felecia was recently a 2013 intern for the Southern Education Foundation. Felecia’s research focus area is HBCU leadership, governance, and administrative practices.

Marybeth Gasman, Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She also serves as the Director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Marybeth is an expert on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Black leadership, fundraising and philanthropy in communities of color and Minority Serving Institutions. She is the author of 18 books in these subject areas and many articles.

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