The Witness

Ignoring Wakanda: The History and Fate of HBCUs

John Richards

Imagine a place where a sea of melanin-enriched faces washes over the terrain. This place is an enclave of blackness, left unscathed by the vestiges of colonialism. It is Black Brilliance on display, 24 hours a day. It is unapologetically and pridefully black.

The Wakanda craze in these social media streets might lead one to the conclusion that I’m talking about a mythical Wakadan utopia here. But what if I told you this place has existed on U.S. soil—as early as 1856?1 It’s a place owned and operated by African-Americans. For us. By us. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) served as centers of intellectual thought for African-Americans at a time where they were seen as less than human. Many HBCUs were founded by Black Christian denominations, as they refused education that wasn’t on their own terms.

Stateside Wakandas

Over the past week, I’ve sensed a deep longing from friends and family alike for a getaway to Wakanda (as portrayed in Marvel’s “Black Panther”). My first thought: These folks must not have attended an HBCU. As a double HBCU graduate, I spent seven years in two separate U.S. Wakandas. And it was beautiful.

In early August 1997, I packed my bags and left my hometown—destined for Morehouse College. I was from a small, quaint city nestled in Southeast Georgia. Brunswick had been home for me for eighteen years.

My mom and I packed up a small truck and headed north to Atlanta, Georgia, as I made my way to what most graduates affectionately call “The House.” Little did I know after arriving at Morehouse, my life would never be the same. Morehouse College, an all-male, black liberal arts college was where I became well-acquainted with DuBois, Baldwin, Ellison, Wright, Baraka, and Hughes. It’s where I experienced a rite of passage ceremony akin to those experienced by our brothers and sisters in Mother Africa. At Morehouse, I became reacquainted with my African roots.

The experience was so nice, I had to do it twice—as I attended Howard University for law school. Howard Law, which produced the attorneys who argued the famous Brown vs. Board of Education case, provided me an immersive Civil Rights experience. With a reputation for producing “social engineers,” Howard Law was more than a program, it was an experience.

A Safe Space

HBCUs have provided African-Americans the one thing they longed for—a safe space. I was recently reminded of just how safe a space HBCUs were for people of color in America. PBS aired a documentary called “Tell Them We are Rising” directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson. The documentary traced the importance of HBCUs.

From the Booker T. Washington/W.E.B. DuBois debate on the approach to educating blacks to the role of HBCU students in non-violent protests in the 1960s, I beamed with pride as the documentary reminded me of one thing—our story matters. And it’s a beautiful story. One of pain and struggle. Redemption and joy. More than that, it’s a story of a people who were dealt a terrible hand and did what they’ve always done—persevered.

The Future of HBCUs

As I watched, I wrote on social media: “Tonight, we get a peek into what Wakanda really looked like on U.S. soil.” But then I grieved. Because I realized not everyone was afforded the opportunity to immerse themselves in these Stateside Wakandas. Not everyone knew what these safe spaces felt like. Whether deciding against college, deciding to attend privileged white institutions (PWIs), or choosing an alternate route, these small tastes of blackness are missing in the lives of people who cry out for immersive experiences among our people.

And we’ve already lost a few of these pillars of black intellectual thought. Some HBCUs are struggling, caught in the throes of financial and enrollment issues. Others are thriving, with endowments that rival other nationwide institutions and steady enrollment numbers.

According to Pew Research studies, in 1980, 17% of black students enrolled at degree-granting institutions were at HBCUs. In 2015, that number dropped to 9%. Despite this fact, HBCUs still accounted for 15% of earned bachelor’s degrees for Blacks in 2015 (even though they represent only 3% of all U.S. schools).

The future of HBCUs is still murky. Pundits believe that many HBCUs will close in the coming decades, due to market forces at times beyond their control. Unfortunately, a school less than a mile away from my beloved Morehouse is on the precipice of that reality.

The PBS documentary showed footage of Morris Brown College’s campus in 2018. It is a shell of its former self. When I was a student, Morris Brown (part of the Atlanta University Center of schools) was a thriving campus community. I would take strolls over to Mo’ B with classmates to spend time with fellow “Wakandans.” Today, partly due to losing accreditation and a financial crisis, Morris Brown, which once boasted an enrollment of 2,700 students, has fifty students. Barely holding on.

For the Culture

The Black Panther craze has mobilized thousands. We saw amazing wardrobes, film industry milestones, and our nation is still abuzz about a film that focuses on people of color. For Us. By Us.

As we long for a mythical home in Wakanda, I sure hope we aren’t ignoring the little Wakandas in our own backyards. The future of our HBCUs depends on us celebrating, attending, and supporting them. For the culture.

  1. Though other HBCUs were founded before Wilberforce University, it is the first school owned and operated by Blacks in America.

1 Comment

  1. Harriet

    #45 has been Hitler to HBCUs-his silent wish is to end them all.He place Bennett President on one of his Ed boards , then to target & go after and try to close Bennett College. Wake up Black America!

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