by Craig Allen Brown

On November 15th, filmmaker Stanley Nelson came to Clark Atlanta University to screen his exceptional film Tell Them We Are Rising, a documentary on historically Black colleges and universities.  This film discusses everything from the origin and purpose of the HBCU, to the current state of HBCU’s across the country.

This film is important, because there are far too many people who have either forgotten, or never completely understood, the significance of the HBCU.  Tell Them We Are Rising will most certainly recapture and reinforce the reasons for the origin of these great institutions, as well as emphasize why these schools are so pivotal to the African-American community going forward.

In order for this film to be as effective as possible, however, its viewing has to be interpreted as a starting point for further empowerment of our HBCU’s.  Just seeing the film is not enough.  Discussing the film is not enough.  There must be distinct courses of action put into place that will ensure that our HBCU’s legacy moves forward, particularly during this current administration.

Empowering the HBCU first means becoming fully aware of their history.  Tell Them We Are Rising will be a great start, but the process must remain continuous.   The boundaries transcended and obstacles overcame must be focal points in our understanding of HBCUs.  The legacies of HBCU alumni such as Walter White, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr., Ida B. Wells, and Stokely Carmichael should be learned and celebrated.  Most importantly, the memory of the thousands of brave men and women who gave their lives in an attempt to educate formerly enslaved African-Americans should be acknowledged and forever cherished.  Because men and women died as a result of attempting to create and empower the HBCU, there should never be a mediocre effort during the educational process.  Staff, students, and alumni must become aware of the hardships involved in erecting the HBCU.  They must understand that blood was spilled in order to ensure African-Americans had an opportunity to fulfill their educational aspirations.  The actions and behaviors of students, the administration, and alumni should always honor that sacrifice.

HBCU’s can become further empowered by prioritizing their importance to prospective students.  Students from HBCU’s are as capable as any other student to achieve success upon graduation.  Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Rosalind Brewer, Toni Morrison, Samuel L. Jackson, and Taraji P. Henson comprise a very short list of those individuals who have had extremely fulfilling careers after their graduation from HBCU’s.

HBCU’s are making strides in the number of STEM degrees conferred to African-American students.  In a study conducted by college professors Marybeth Gasman and Thai-Huy Nguyen, nine HBCU’s were listed in the top 20 STEM degree-producing schools for African-Americans.  Howard University was responsible for more STEM degrees for African-American students than the University of Florida, Florida State University, Ohio State University and Rutgers University.

Top African-American high school athletes tend to matriculate to predominantly white institutions at a greater rate than HBCU’s.  There is a belief that HBCU’s do not offer the kind of competition that readies a college athlete for a career in professional sports.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The greatest running back and wide receiver in NFL history, Walter Payton and Jerry Rice, respectively, are both products of HBCUs.  Other standout players who are products of HBCU’s are Steve McNair (Alcorn State), Doug Williams (Grambling State), Michael Strahan (Texas Southern), and Shannon Sharpe (Savannah State).  It is problematic that the majority of NFL and NBA players are African-American, yet so few attend HBCU’s.  The HBCU was the entity that first allowed African-American students to compete in intercollegiate athletics; it is a shame that this has been forgotten.  College sports is a billion-dollar enterprise; the financial health of so many institutions and athletic conferences would become vastly improved when our best college athletes understand that it was HBCU’s that made a way.

In a recent interview with Roland Martin, CAU President Dr. Ronald A. Johnson stated that 5% of alumni currently contribute to the school, and that this rate is consistent among HBCU’s.  In comparison, usnews.com published a list of the top 10 institutions in terms of percentage of alumni who give back; the average percentage of alumni who donated back to those institutions was over 50%.

Financial health is the lifeblood of any HBCU.  The individuals who should understand and respect that the most are its alumni.  Their ability to graduate was made more obtainable, on some level, by those who graduated before them.  It is not in the best interest of the university to “grab your degree and run.”  Becoming a donor to one’s alma mater provides a means for an often-neglected community to continue the very serious business of educating its young people.  It not only strengthens the community, but it honors those individuals who strove to educate African-Americans under the most challenging of circumstances.  Men and women died in the process of establishing HBCU’s.  In today’s society, young men and women are imprisoned or killed at alarming rates.  Donations to HBCU’s not only pay respect to those who sacrificed so heavily; they ensure that our young men and women have a choice beyond prison cells and caskets.

The HBCU is a sacred organization.  The most influential African-Americans the world has ever known have either been educated by it, instructed at it, or otherwise supported it.  It is important to not only acknowledge and cherish its profound history, but to ensure that the legacy of the HBCU lives on.  Forever.

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