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HBCUs: Pioneers of Black History’s Past, Present, Future

During Black History Month, we always hear familiar names and read inspiring articles about towering figures and unsung heroes from the Black community. We are reminded about what they accomplished, but often overlook how they got there.

Many of the leaders we honor and recognize are products of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). As the President & CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), it is important to me that our HBCUs are also honored not just for the role they played in the past, but the role, impact and influence they have today.

Our HBCUs deserve more of a starring role in our great American story because our campuses remain in the business of helping our nation to realize its greatest potential through education. HBCUs are still overproducing black doctors, lawyers and scientists. HBCUs are also leading on groundbreaking research and data into finding solutions to barriers to success in fragile communities.

The Association for the Study of African Life and History, the founders of Black History Month, set the 2018 theme as “African Americans in Times of War.” The HBCU legacy during battle is strong, with giants such as Robert Friend, Daniel James, Jr., Benjamin O. Davis Jr., all of our Tuskegee Airmen and the numerous men and women who achieved high ranks and commendations in the military hailing from our HBCUs. Many African-American veterans used the GI Bill to attend our schools and receive a quality education. We are proud of our rich history supporting HBCUs and appreciate our partnerships with the Department of Defense through internships, scholarships and programs such as the Vivian Burey Marshall Academy, which is funded by the U.S. Army.

One TMCF scholar, Devin Frederick, said: “TMCF really taught me the value of an education and that specific skills are really needed to advance within any situation in life… I was able to receive an internship in Rome, N.Y. with the Rome Air Force Research Laboratory. This was my first internship and first opportunity to travel by myself to a different state. I was also offered a full-time position with Walmart as a rotational analyst, thanks to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund Leadership Institute.”

Such partnerships allow TMCF to be a pipeline for top HBCU talent and careers in the U.S. military.

As we recollect on the past, this proud history continues today. Among the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s 47 member-schools are thousands of social scientists, researchers and rising experts in all fields of industry, who in spite of a host of different socio-economic, cultural and familial circumstances are following the footsteps of those HBCU students, professors, supporters and advocates who made and changed American history so many years ago.

The schools themselves have evolved, as well. These campuses, endowed early with gifts from philanthropists such as Booker T. Washington, John D. Rockefeller and W.K. Kellogg, now find Walmart, John Deere, U.S. Department of Defense, Wells Fargo, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries amongst the long list of major partners who support TMCF and the nearly 300,000 students on our member-school campuses. These partnerships maintain the founding principles of supporting student success through scholarship funding, but now also integrate workforce development, financial planning, networking and entrepreneurship as tenets of HBCU advancement.

America’s success is intrinsically tied to the progress of its entire population, and Black History Month is an important reminder of the nation’s great possibilities. Individual success stories punctuate the nation’s potential, but its institutions of higher learning designed to train and inspire these American icons should not be forgotten, or neglected, in our journey to greatness.

Let’s put our celebration into action and galvanize around our HBCUs. Remind people of their historical importance and present-day value. Donate to TMCF, or one of our member-schools, and join me in pledging to help them survive and thrive. To celebrate Black history is to also celebrate HBCU history, and we do so this month.

Dr. Harry L. Williams is the President & CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF).

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