HBCUs: A History and Future of Preparing Activist Leaders

Last Updated on May 27, 2023

Black and white images of HBCU activists both past and present.
Top from left to right: Ebony Magazine editor Jamilah Lemieux (Howard University), the A&T Four integrate a Woolworth Counter in 1960 and the Dream Defenders executive director Phillip Agnew (Florida A&M University). Bottom from left to right: Howard University demonstration, Diane Nash (Fisk University) marching to City Hall in Nashville, TN and Atlanta University Center students protesting at the CNN center.

In the past few weeks, this country has endured concurrent blows of injustice. First, there was the announcement from Ferguson, MO that a grand jury chose to not indict Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year-old Black man. Then a week later, a grand jury from New York announced that they too decided not to not indict a police officer in the murder of Eric Garner, another unarmed Black man. It is in times like these that many people find themselves enraged, disappointed, confused, hurt, and simply angry. Many also find themselves searching for answers, searching for direction, and undoubtedly searching for leaders.

Throughout history HBCUs have been the womb from which some of the world’s greatest leaders and activists emerged. These institutions have a long history of instilling a sense of duty, pride, social consciousness, and unabashed courage to confront systems of oppression in their students. Consider Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, David Richmond, & Joseph McNeil – the A&T Four – students that integrated a Woolworth Counter on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Or Diane Nash, a Fisk University student that was active in the ‘Rock Hill Nine’ – students that integrated lunch counters in Nashville – and a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Or Alice Walker, who while a student at Spelman College, pushed back against racist Whites denying the vote to African Americans in Georgia. There are countless examples of HBCU students and those that were educated at HBCUs being activists in local and national settings.

Given the history of activist students at HBCUs, it is no shock that in a time like this, we find many leaders of what is becoming commonly known as the “Black Lives Matter” movement have roots on HBCU campuses. For example, Phillip Agnew, executive director of The Dream Defenders, has been a vocally and visually present leader in the movement against police brutality and systems of oppression against Black people. Agnew is an alumnus of Florida A&M University (FAMU). It was while at FAMU that Agnew first came to becoming engaged in community activism after hearing of the beating of a 14-year-old from Florida who died while incarcerated at a boot camp-style youth detention center – the Bay County Boot Camp operated by the Bay County Sheriff's Office. Anderson collapsed while performing required physical training – running track – at the camp. He complained of fatigue but guards forced him to continue his run. He then collapsed and died. It was this event that spurred Agnew, as a FAMU student, to begin engaging legislators and law enforcement in the pursuit of justice.

In another example, following the Ferguson grand jury announcement, students from Howard University took to the streets marching and peacefully protesting at the Supreme Court and the White House. And, students from the Atlanta University Center (AUC) marched through the streets of Atlanta chanting names of Black women and men killed by police. HBCU alumni such as Ebony editor Jamilah Lemieux, an alumna of Howard University offered her voice in various media outlets, such as CNN and MSNBC, and gave opportunity for other voices to be heard in various media outlets throughout the nation.

These examples are but a small few, as there have been protests and persons standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement on HBCU campuses and all over this country. Leadership, service, and social awareness are elements that can be found ingrained in the fabric of many HBCUs across the country. Undoubtedly, we find that HBCUs whether as institutions or through the agency of their students and alumni are standing up, speaking out, and demanding change within this broken and often racist justice system in America. We should support them. We should follow their lead.

About the Authors

Felecia Commodore, Penn Center for Minority Serving InstitutionsFelecia 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.

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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