Chicago stars Oprah Winfrey, Common, and Karen Jordan attended historically black colleges and universities
Before my work at Northwestern University, before my studies at Harvard, I attended Spelman College in Atlanta, a historically black school for women. For those unfamiliar with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), a Cosby Show spinoff in the ’80s and ‘90s called A Different World, starring Lisa Bonet, chronicled the experiences of students at a fictional HBCU. Bill Cosby, the show’s creator and executive producer, and his wife, Camille, gave Spelman a $20 million gift in 1987, and outside shots of the fictional Hillman College campus were actually those of Spelman. My college experience was similar to that of Denise Huxtable and her friends—an exceptional four years in my life.
Founded in 1881 in the basement of Atlanta’s Friendship Baptist Church by white missionaries Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, Spelman’s founding goal was to educate newly freed slave women. Contributions from the black community, other donors, and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller allowed Packard and Giles to grow the institution and eventually move it to its current location, just five minutes from downtown Atlanta. Spelman is named in honor of the family of John D. Rockefeller’s wife, longtime activists in the Anti-Slavery Movement.
Here in Chicago, tens of thousands of high-school seniors will apply for college this year. My hope is that many of them will consider applying to an HBCU. Many prominent locals have graduated from historically black colleges, including journalists Marion Brooks and Karen Jordan. Some of the brightest minds in academia, now at places like Northwestern and the University of Chicago, have attended HBCUs like Spelman, Morehouse College, and Howard University. Media queen Oprah Winfrey received her bachelor’s degree from Tennessee State University, and hip-hop artist Common attended Florida A & M University. I would be heartened to see more local students attend historically black colleges—and then bring back their education and talents to this city.
In today’s supposedly post-racial era, we frequently hear debates about the continuing significance of institutions like Spelman. Common misconceptions are that these institutions are not diverse, that they don’t represent the “real world,” and that they offer inferior educations relative to predominately white institutions.
But to assume that HBCUs are not diverse is to limit one’s definition of diversity—and to see blacks in simplistic terms. Spelman has both wealthy and poor students, from 12 countries around the world, representing all of the major religions, across the political spectrum. Attending Spelman taught me valuable lessons about the complexity of black life and the challenges inherent in constructing “the black community” as a monolith.
As students, we took on real world issues in the classroom, in our internships and study abroad opportunities, and in our service to the community. Connecting to the “real world” was at the heart of my educational experience, but we were finally in a school where our race and gender weren’t positioned as sources of disadvantage. They were asserted as sources of pride, beauty, rich history, and a responsibility to become leaders who live up to our fullest potential. The school instilled confidence and served as a first-aid station to heal us from the injuries of racism and sexism that many of us had sustained growing up.
I sometimes hear the question, “Why do blacks get to self-segregate like that? If there was an all-white college, people would be up in arms.” Non-black students have never been excluded from attending HBCUs. In fact, some HBCUs have an increasing number of non-black students. Spelman admits qualified candidates regardless of race, color, national or ethnic origin, or disability. Further, it is important to recognize that minority-serving institutions (e.g., the HBCU, the Jewish elementary school, the Asian-American professional organization) are responses to decades—and sometimes centuries—of exclusion by the majority. These institutions are not racist just because they are made up mostly of minorities. Racist institutions encourage and reinforce limited opportunities and thwarted potential of the less powerful in order to protect the resources and interests of the powerful. On the contrary, these groups and HBCUs seek to challenge racism and sexism and promote inclusion by preparing their constituencies to become active contributors to society—in environments that affirm and instill confidence when the rest of the world often fails to do so.
And what to make of that misconception that HBCUs, by their very nature, offer a substandard education that won’t be positively viewed by other educational institutions or employers upon graduation? According to statistics gathered by the United Negro College Fund and other educational tracking organizations, more than half of all African American professionals are graduates of HBCUs. Nine of the top ten colleges that graduate the most African Americans who go on to earn Ph.D.s are HBCUs. More than half of the nation’s African American female doctorates in all science fields attended Spelman or Bennett College for Women, another HBCU, as undergraduates. My closest friends from college include a judge, an owner of a successful dermatology practice, a therapist, and a business executive. They’ve worked on Wall Street or obtained graduate degrees from places like Harvard and Vanderbilt.
In May, my friends and I returned to Spelman for our 15th year reunion. While touring the archives, tears swelled up in my eyes as I saw photographs of Spelman’s first students in 1881—black women clothed in their best dresses, just 16 years post-Emancipation. Many of them had once been the property of white families. Their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts lived in servitude with little to no control over their bodies, their work, and their destinies. These students had been sent to Spelman as part of a new dawn in America, in which black women would not be reduced to bondage. And they chose to use that freedom to pursue an education, to join a rich tradition of uplift through scholarship and service to the community. Today, my friends and I are the legacies of these efforts, thriving in our careers, raising strong families, and taking on leadership roles in our communities. We represent the norm among Spelman alumnae rather than exception. Black students should be represented in every kind of college and university, but the HBCU occupies a special place in higher education.
Photography: (Oprah) Associated Press; (Karen Jordan) ABC7