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This moment is a reminder about the importance of HBCUs

HBCUs uniquely support first-generation students and black culture

Last year this time our world seemed certain.

But because of a devastating coronavirus, that world has been turned inside out and most of us have been forced to live a virtual reality.

One thing that has remained unchanged is the self-defining certainty that comes from attending a historically black college or university (HBCU). I attended and graduated from Morgan State University in Baltimore. The years I spent at Morgan laid the foundation for everything I would achieve in journalism.

Even in the best of times, the road is never easy, but the experience is life-defining.

Recently, I spoke with David Wilson, president of Morgan State University, about the devastating impact the pandemic is having on students in general and on HBCU students in particular.

“The uniqueness of HBCUs and many minority-serving institutions is that we typically minister to the needs of a larger percentage of first-generation college-going students and that is where you begin to see the economic divide in the country,” Wilson said.

The pandemic has fallen disproportionately on the backs of first-generation-serving institutions. Wilson has seen the disparity play out firsthand, as schools were forced to close.

Many of the elite schools closed immediately.

“The students made a phone call to their parents and within hours they had plane tickets,” Wilson recalled, citing news accounts. “Parents were showing up in Mercedes and BMWs to pick them up.”

That was not the case with many students at Morgan.

“We had to help come up with money to help them get home,” he recalled. Devastating as the virus has been, it pales comparison with the hardship many HBCU students have faced as a matter of routine. Wilson knows. He was one of those students.

What a difference a generation makes

Wilson was born in McKinley, Alabama, the youngest of 10 children.

His family lived in a shanty on the property where his father worked as a sharecropper. No electricity or plumbing.

His father had a system in place where initially none of the children went to school, Eventually, Wilson was allowed to go to school two days one week, three days the next week. His five older brothers did not finish first grade.

Wilson said he was in the seventh grade before he attended school for five consecutive days.

Then one day one of his teachers took Wilson and four other students on a field trip to Tuskegee Institute.

“I could not believe that institution,” Wilson recalled. “I could not believe that institution. It was an upper-middle-class life that I had never seen before. I had never seen homes like that, well-manicured lawns like that.”

The instructor took them to the statue of Booker T. Washington, founder of the school. They touched the statue.

“I just felt that my whole world had been turned upside down in a positive way.”

Wilson went on to earn his master’s degree and doctorate at Harvard, but Tuskegee changed his life.

Bill Rhoden played defensive back at Morgan State from 1968-71.

My upbringing on the South Side of Chicago was different from Wilson’s, but an HBCU had the same impact on my life.

My father was a mathematics teacher and an administrator for the Board of Education. My older sister attended Northwestern and my younger brother would attend the University of Illinois, where he studied voice under William Warfield.

Me?

I sleepwalked through most of high school. Dreamed pleasant dreams, embraced journalism, played a little football. But mostly dreamed.

My high school coach, Sherman Howard, told me that I was going to Morgan State.

Not sure that saved my life, but it certainly gave me life-changing direction.

Gloster Richardson, at that time a receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs, was substitute teaching one day at my school, Harlan High School. After class, he suggested I come to Grand Crossing Park and work out with some players who lived in Chicago. This was 1968 and I was a huge Chiefs fan. Like so many AFL teams, the Chiefs were loaded with players from HBCUs. Richardson and his brother, Willie, played at Jackson State.

I met a couple of Chicago Bears players at the park. One, Major Hazelton, was from Florida A&M. Willie Thrower was tossing passes, though I wouldn’t realize his significance as one of the NFL’s first black quarterbacks until years later.

What I do remember is the validation I received when Gloster told the group I was headed to Morgan State. Willie Lanier, who preceded me at Morgan by two years, had become the first African American to star at middle linebacker, a position commonly thought of then as a white player’s position.

Those workouts, and especially the conversations that followed, opened my eyes to the universe of black college football and to black college culture.

Today, most black college students attend predominantly white institutions. However, the largest concentration of African American college students attend HBCUs. They attend for different reasons. Some decisions are financial. In many instances, after being one of a few black students in their high schools, some simply want a change of scenery.

Context is everything

Donovan Dooley, a recent graduate of North Carolina A&T State University and an inaugural member of The Undefeated Rhoden Fellows initiative, said he chose A&T in part because the university offered a generous financial aid package.

“What I didn’t know is that being at N.C. A&T would catapult my career to heights I could have never predicted. Being around like-minded and driven young black people every day only helps you grow as a black person. Iron sharpens iron and no other institutions embody that better than HBCUs,” said Dooley.

Some students say they chose an HBCU because they wanted to experience black culture. But some of the most venerated black studies departments are hosted at predominantly white institutions.

Culture, in this context, is not about the formal classroom, but about the living, breathing, daily experience of being on an HBCU campus, being part of a continuum.

There are trade-offs, of course — going to a heavily resourced institution, being classmates and friends with students whose life experiences are different from yours.

On the other hand, there is something powerful and self-affirming about being in the majority for those precious years of college.

To me, the significance of attending an HBCU becomes more pronounced with each passing year. The significance of pedigree fades and is replaced by stamina and tenacity. Connections matter, resources matter, but there comes a point when all that really matters is overcoming obstacles and performing.

It’s what HBCUs were built for.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.