HBCUs Must Tell Their Own Story
By Fred Whitted, Columnist
A recent report placed four Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) on an ominous list that none of them want to be on. Even worse, none of them can afford to be on a list that state that they are not worth the investment made to attend them. The gist of the study was that their overall offerings placed graduates in lower earning jobs rather than jobs on the higher plateaus. It was interesting that there were four HBCUs in the lower thirteen institutions out of the 4,146 accredited colleges and universities across the nation.
While not sure of all of the factors used to arrive at their conclusions, it is clear that there are problems. As in anything related to HBCUs, there is always room for improvement in most aspects of their operations. Whether they like to admit it or not, they are competing with larger, better funded and managed institutions for students, money, and a place in the public eye. Their place in the public eye comes directly back to the money and students.
One of the most telling points of the story occurs when one takes a look at the list, then, Googles the schools on the list. Looking at the two HBCUs from the state of North Carolina, it is easy to find that Shaw University is the oldest HBCU in the south. Likewise, Fayetteville State was the first HBCU in the South with public funding . The sticking point comes when you try to look beyond the general information posted on their websites and find written materials about them.
Having recently completed a book about Shaw’s athletic program (THE SHAW BEARS: The Decade of Champions and Beyond), it was rough reading the story. As part of the research for a book that focused on their athletic programs, it was necessary to look at other aspects of the University. Dating back to its 1865 founding, their alumni is second to none. In the portion of the book devoted to their history, we stepped outside athletics and looked at the other contributions over nearly 150 years. Their alumni have made major contributions to the Raleigh-Durham community, North Carolina, the nation and the world.
The same can be said of Fayetteville State University. Two years ago, FAYETTEVILLE: Profiled in Black was published. This is a book that details the history of Blacks in Fayetteville and Cumberland County. One of the key components was the most detailed history of Fayetteville State ever published. As the book was put together, many of the profiles were of Fayetteville State graduates. While this was a local history publication, there are great contributions from their athletic programs.
The point behind all of this is that these two schools, like most HBCUs, have not told their real stories. As we looked at the situation a few years ago for the Black College Sports Encyclopedia, we found that there were less than three dozen books ever written about individual Black colleges. Most of these books are more than twenty years old.
In short, HBCUs have failed to tell their own stories. If you look at the major institutions, there are bundles of books rehashing the same stories about them. We know far more about those institutions than we need, or want, to know. At the same time, most of what we hear about HBCUs comes through the news, and, too much of it is negative. Because their story has not been told, there is no balance.
They don’t get to hear that major parts of the Civil Rights Movement, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was founded on the Shaw University campus, and, was led by a Shaw graduate, Ella Baker. You do not hear that Shaw produced more than 400 doctors in their medical school. You do not hear that the first Black to serve in the governor’s cabinet was a Shaw graduate. You do not hear that Shaw graduates put athletics together Black high schools and managed it during the days of segregation.
At a time when Black high schools were not allowed in major arenas, their championship tournaments were held on Shaw’s campus. There was a direct connection to Shaw because so many of the best coaches of that era graduated from Shaw. When you think of the CIAA, remember, Shaw University was the only founding member from North Carolina.
Whether you look at Shaw or Fayetteville State, you are looking at two quality institutions. Both are valuable parts of the greater family of HBCUs. While they compete on the courts and fields of athletics, both have a long-standing list of contributions to our society. It is far too easy to sell stories about the larger institutions. Their alumni tend to be ravenous about those books that tell their stories. Publishing houses are falling over each other to tell the most minute details about them. Does that really make them more important? NO, especially if their names are not on your diploma.
What is important in all of this is alumni support for the books written about their alma mater. Just as important, HBCU alumni must support those books, along with the magazines and newspapers that tell the HBCU stories. During our research for the most recent Black College Sports Encyclopedia, we looked at the newspapers and reporters who once covered HBCU sports. Most of what we know of our history today comes directly from those newspapers. The book we are completing on the all-Black high schools of North Carolina is coming from Black newspapers.
Whether it is Shaw or Fayetteville State, it is important that the story of HBCUs be told. When they fail to their own stories, they accept the stories others tell about them, right or wrong. This removes the opportunity to bring balance when things go wrong.
Fred Whitted is CEO of Black Heritage Review (www.blackheritagereview.com) and author of The Black College Sports Encyclopedia. A historian, archivist and proud graduate of Winston – Salem State University, Whitted is also a contributing co – host to the Internet radio program Soul Tree Radio – In The Raw.