Historically Black Colleges: More to Love, Than to Hate
By Irene Rose
“Please open your textbook to page two hundred nineteen,” my English teacher instructed. Not everyone likes English class, but my thoughts raced and my fingers flipped through the pages with anticipation. I expected to see another title relating to the “American experience” written on the page, but instead the words “Introduction to a Slave Narrative” glared back at me. My teacher began explaining how we were going to read an excerpt from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano and his experience aboard a slave ship. Surprised, but very much interested I volunteered to read the biography and summary that came prior to the story. As I began to read aloud, it felt as though everyone’s eyes were glued to my face. I had never felt self-conscious about reading in class, until that moment. They had expected me to raise my hand and they expected me to have an opinion about the subject because I was black.
The thought of attending a historically black college never crossed my mind until my sophomore year of high school. At the time, I hardly knew anything about these schools except that they existed. Like many of my classmates, I wanted to go to a well-known school that had a good reputation and thousands of students from different backgrounds. It wasn’t until I realized that less than six percent of my high school was of African American decent, that I even considered attending a historically black college. I began to notice how I was the only black girl in many of my classes. I began to see that my teachers were mostly Caucasian and did not represent me. At lunch I began to notice who my friends were and how little they knew about me. I did not want to change my circumstances until I began to realize how alone I really was. I hated the feeling of isolation.
For the longest, my goals were to stay where I felt comfortable, go to a prestigious university, and live out my college experience to the fullest. Little did I know at the time, that I could have these things and more at a historically black institution as well.
The idea of waking up every morning, going to class each day, and spending time with people from your own race may seem boring to most people. However, even if the majority of people are from the same ethnic group, they are still very different. In high school I was under the impression that historically black colleges lacked diversity. Yet, after only a few days of freshmen orientation at Spelman College I quickly discovered that HBCUs have just as much variety.
According to Aneer Rukh-Kamma, a doctoral degree candidate at Howard University, who has attended both a white and black college, “You can be in a room full of people and feel all alone.” At a historically black college it is very hard to be alone because you will be surrounded by individuals just like you. Although “there wasn’t any tension or hostility,” claims Rukh-Kamma, few students talked to or even acknowledged him at his white institution. It is human nature to gravitate towards people of similar backgrounds, so it comes as no surprise that at white institutions, an African American student may feel secluded.
The smaller student bodies at historically black colleges and the strong support systems make it easier for students to interact with their peers and professors. Many public colleges have thousands of students and you become just another number on a roster, rather than a person. Rukh-Kamma feels that it was “easier to develop close relationships with your professors at Howard.” This is probably because of the smaller class sizes and more personal learning environment. At historically black colleges the faculties actually want their students to do well because they are black students and because they themselves are black. At HBCUs, students are more than just a number and more than just a face in the crowd. They are individuals with aspirations, dreams, and fears that are acknowledged everyday by those around them.
However, no institution is perfect and there will always be flaws in the historically black college system. One of the main problems, that I have experienced first hand, is the discouragement that is sometimes given to students who attend or want to attend a historically black school. People, both black and white, often believe that the education offered at these colleges is inferior to the education offered at well respected white institutions. A very close friend of mine, was waiting for her mother to pick her up one evening after school. When her mother finally arrived I walked Laura to her car. Her mother and I were engaged in a friendly conversation when the topic of college choices came up. I already knew what my choice was going to be so I proudly told her that I had recently been accepted to Spelman College and was greatly looking forward to attending the school in the fall. She gave me a fake smile and pompously announced that her daughter was probably going to attend either the University of Southern California or one of the Claremont Colleges. Although she didn’t flat out say it, I knew she felt her daughter’s choice in schools were better than mine. Laura later explained to me that her mother wouldn’t even let her apply to a historically black college, for reasons she wouldn’t clarify. It hurt to know that this well-off African American family, who I had know for years, did not completely approve of my decision to attend a HBCU.
Another challenge historically black colleges face is funding. They are private schools that do not receive state or government funding; therefore they have to rely on generous benefactors, church organizations, foundations, and alumni. With the current state of our economy, it has been even more difficult for these schools to prosper.
Also, Historically black colleges are not easily accessible. I live on the west coast in California and had to travel four hours via airplane in order to attend my dream college. I applied to colleges in my home state fully aware of the advantages that came with going to a local college. However, if I stayed at home I would not be able to attend a historically black college and experience black culture to the fullest.
Although historically black colleges may not have all the resources or be in the nicest neighborhoods, or have the endowments that white colleges have, they have many things that make them unique and worth attending. The fact that every month is Black History Month sets these schools apart. There is the comfort of going to classes that are tailored to black students and that positively reflect African Americans. Yes, there will be competition with thousands of ambitious, talented, black students, but there will be competition in any college I attend. Competing on a level where I will have to work harder to set myself apart from my peers will only benefit me in the long run.
I feel extremely proud to be attending a historically black college because of the history. I remember going on college tours to Alabama and Georgia. At one black college in Alabama I stood on land that used to support plantation buildings, but now was the foundation of a prestigious black college. I remember walking through a mass gravesite for slaves and thanking God that I have been blessed with so many opportunities. People forget that historically black colleges were a necessity because for hundreds of years African Americans could not get an education. People forget about our ancestors who struggled, sacrificed, and even died to ensure that one day African Americans could have universities and colleges to call their own. It fills me with pride to know that I will be able to share in their legacy and learn on a campus more than one hundred years in the making. More young African American students need this opportunity to discover how “to be black, think black, and succeed as a black person in America.” Maybe if more students took advantage of these institutions there could be more pride and self-love within our race.
© Irene Rose