“You tell them my story. You tell them your story. You tell them the story of greatness. You tell them the HBCU story.”
These were the parting words from HBCUStory, Inc. founder and executive editor, Dr. Crystal A. deGregory. On October 24th and 25th, HBCU researchers, administrators, faculty, and advocates gathered to do just that at the HBCUStory Symposium in Washington, DC. The symposium gathered at Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities as the APLU Office for Success and Access served as partners. Dr. John Michael Lee, Jr., the Vice President, Office for Access and Success at APLU greeted attendees and not only asked how do we tell the HBCU story so that others understand it, but also added that “We have to think about what’s the future of our institutions going to be and how are we going to get them there?” This was in essence the overarching question of the two day conference. The symposium theme, “Where Do HBCUs Go From Here?: Strategic Partnerships & Sustainable Futures” guided the presentations, conversations, and discussions. For two days those gathered would honor the legacy of those HBCU greats that have gone before and simultaneously contemplate how the HBCU community would carry that legacy forward.
This year, HBCUStory honored 5 persons with the Storyteller of the Year Legacy award: Dr. L.M. Collins, Mary Alice Yancey Love, Taronda Spencer, Dr. Hazo W. Carter, Jr., and Dr. Johnny B. Hodge, Jr. One of the most anticipated moments of the symposium was that of keynote speaker Dr. Johnetta B. Cole. Dr. Cole, the first African American woman president of Spelman College and former president of Bennett College. Dr. Cole, the 2014 HBCUStory Storyteller of the Year: Emerita awardee, centered her keynote on awardee, Taronda Spencer, who served as the archivist and historian of Spelman College. Dr. Cole talked about her decision to place her papers at Spelman and it how through that process she developed a relationship with Taronda Spencer. She stressed that our work, as was Taronda Spencer’s, is to tell “the story.” She spoke of how Taronda Spencer’s legacy echoed the famous quote of Mary McLeod Bethune’s famous words, “We must lift as we climb.” Dr. Cole shared that Taronda Spencer touched many lives, especially those who were students of Spelman. Dr. Cole begged the question, if that was not also the task at hand for those in the room. She left us with the question, “Isn’t it our responsibility to touch as many lives as we can?”
The second keynote speaker, Dr. Ivory Toldson, Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, and 2014 HBCU Storyteller of the Year: Legend Awardee, also gave insightful and inspiring words to attendees. Dr. Toldson pointed out there are groups of people who are actively trying to solve HBCU problems and then there are groups who are invested in HBCU problems. Dr. Toldson challenged the HBCU community to clearly identify the two groups while deciding upon who serve as allies and who does not. Telling his own story as a scholar, Dr. Toldson communicated an overall message that HBCU scholars should not feel constricted to traditional routes of academia to be effective scholars, that the notion that we have to look at problems objectively should be challenged, and that the renaissance will not come from comparing ourselves to predominately White institutions (PWIs). In reference to partnering with PWIs, he states, “If we understand their benefit to us, and they don’t understand our benefit to them, then that is a relationship set up to fail.” Dr. Toldson left a charge to HBCU Scholars to “..be emotional, be contentious, be angry, be arrogant, and be brave.”
The presentations of the symposium did not disappoint as they were diverse and thought provoking. Ebonie Johnson Cooper and Michelle Janaye Nealy kicked off the conversation with “The Young, Black, & Giving Back: How to Engage African-American Millennials As HBCU Alumni Donors” and “Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is: Helping to Sustain HBCUs for Future Generations” respectively. In learning how to engage younger HBCU supporters Cooper stressed the “Three E’s”: Engage, Enrich, and Empower. The HBCU community was tasked to engage persons using social media, enrich through collaboration, and empower through leadership opportunities. Other presentations highlighted the practice of Pan-Africanism through sports programs at HBCUs, the implications of HBCU mergers and closures, the decline of African-American Male attendance at HBCUs, and Black education at HBCUs. Leadership and organizational effectiveness was also a highlighted topic during the conference. Amanda Washington and Terrance B. Tarver, spoke to whether or not state HBCUs benefitted from increasing their selectivity standards to appear more competitive. This presentation sparked much conversation among attendees. Anelle Alfred spoke to institutional and organizational effectiveness of HBCUs and brought in the power of social media in the perception of the two. Also, the Morehouse’s Mathematics department and the ways in which the program empowers young Black men in the field of study were unearthed and discussed by Dr. Christopher Jett and Duane Cooper. Closing out the presentations were discussions about HBCU Campuses engaging and connecting with the communities in which they are located and the power of new media and the digital age at HBCUs. Jackson State University’s CyberLearning initiative was highlighted as well as some HBCUs leading the way in developing programs in gaming and animation.
Dr. deGregory closed out the conference reminding attendees that HBCU relevance is a losing proposition. She presented that HBCUs don’t have to prove their relevance, and that HBCU advocates a do not have to prove HBCUs’ relevance—HBCUs have already done and continue to do so. deGregory states, “HBCUs are not merely relevant. HBCUs are exceptional, they are pioneering, they are innovative, they are supportive, they are caring, they are doing the lionshare of the work of educating people in this country who other people deem unteachable, unlearnable, uneducatable.” Dr. deGregory laid out an arsenal of facts and statistics that support the greatness and the both historic and contemporary impact of HBCUs. Met with rousing applause and cheers many participants felt inspired and revived to continue the journey of HBCU advocacy.
The 2014 HBCUStory Symposium brought together scholars, administrators, policymakers, and faculty from both HBCUs and PWIs. Much of what is already known within the HBCU community was confirmed, but also much was learned. Though various conversations and ideas regarding the approach to the advocacy and sustainability of HBCUs buzzed about the room, one thing was agreed upon—HBCUs continue to be invaluable institutions in US higher education. The symposium not only created an atmosphere that was heavy with the reflection and celebration of the history of HBCUs. It also created a space to talk candidly and constructively about the challenges that face these institutions. Many participants made connections and are looking forward the symposium next year. The HBCUStory Symposium was not a typical conference. Rather, it was a space of sharing and conversation. It was a space where voices that often fight attempts of silencing had the opportunity to speak and be celebrated and heard. It was a space where one’s academic lineage was respected regardless of their institution’s designation. It was a space where one thing mattered and that one thing was that those there believed in HBCUs’ past and their potential. In a higher education landscape riddled with competitive comparisons and relevancy rhetoric the HBCUStory conference, much like the institutions it celebrates, provides a space where the question is not if greatness is possible, but when and how will members and allies of the HBCU community build upon the greatness that is already there.
About the Author
Felecia Commodore is a fourth 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.