Since their inception, historically black colleges and universities have served as important educational, cultural and social centers in the black community. Loved by generations of students for whom they make a way out of no way, it is no surprise that black colleges have a special and enduring relationship with the black community.
The strongest and most obvious impact HBCUs make on the black community is seen through its graduates. The time coeds spend on HBCU campuses is formative in the creation of their professional and personal character for the rest of their lives. HBCU alums readily acknowledge that their institutions gave them their first — and sometimes only — real sense of their own infinite possibility. It is for these reasons that thousands of HBCU alumni feel especially endeared and indeed indebted to their alma maters.
This reality suggests that HBCUs of the 21st century should continue to embrace its historical mission to teach its students more than classroom curriculum. In a world where young adults are inundated by the casual nature of social media, HBCUs must stress the importance of effective verbal and written communication. When necessary, HBCUs must, with care and compassion, guide its students’ grooming, encourage their observation of essential social graces, and then shape their sense of social responsibility. Black colleges must ready the minds, bodies and spirits of its students for the challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead in wait in the wider world.
But HBCUs must not stop there.
Although the transformative work of HBCUs is primarily geared towards its students, black colleges must also assume the mammoth task of transforming the communities surrounding its campuses. In the golden age of HBCU history, black town and gown were inseparable. For example, in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the black communities of Tallahassee, Fla, Atlanta, Greensboro, N.C. and Nashville, Tenn. provided critical support to local black college students’ efforts to desegregate their respective cities. Working together for each other’s good, black college student activists and the black community helped to usher in the nation’s most salient advancements in the 20th century struggle for civil rights, justice and equality.
Now that the environs surrounding HBCUs are often blighted by social ills, it may be tempting for the HBCU to see its mission as separate from addressing the challenges posed by these communities. Black colleges, however, must yield not to this temptation. Traditionally White Institutions (TWI) for example, don’t separate themselves from their surrounding physical communities. More and more, TWIs are diligently working to unite town and gown; and they are securing the buy-in of their community of supporters to do so.
If HBCUs are to remain educationally as well as fiscally viable, they must teach their students to support their alma maters in thought, word and deed. HBCUs must intensify their community outreach. The fate of these institutions is tied to the black communities from which our students emerge, and to which our graduates will most likely return.
Live H.O.P.E. Give H.O.P.E.
Dr. Crystal A. deGregory
About the Author
A 2003 graduate of Fisk University, Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is the founder and executive editor of HBCUstory, an online advocacy center presenting inspiring stories of the HBCUs past and present, for our future. She teaches in Tennessee State University’s department of history, geography and political science department. Follow her and HBCUstory on Twitter @HBCUstorian and @HBCUstory.