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Appreciation: Dr. Elias Blake, 1929-2007

It was in 1976, while I served as assistant to the provost at The Ohio State University, that I first met Dr. Elias Blake, then president of the Institute for Services to Education (ISE) in Washington, DC. Blake was the featured speaker for the University’s Office of Minority Affairs spring program, headed by Dr. Frank Hale. It was my task to transport Blake from the airport to the campus for the event. 

The conversation with Blake from the airport to the campus that day was a transforming experience. I was convinced that I was in the presence of a great educator who was dedicated to improving the capability of historically Black colleges and universities to provide access to more and better educational opportunities for Blacks and other Americans. In the 30-minute ride, Blake laid out his philosophy for improving HBCUs. He also explained the proposed desegregation of public higher education and the positive impact it could have on public Black institutions, provided they weren’t the only ones required to desegregate to bring the educational systems in the 19 Southern and border states into balance.

Blake noted during the ride that ISE, with foundation support, housed a research institute whose focus was to examine the potential effects of desegregation planning on publicly supported HBCUs. Because of my interest in the issue as an alumnus of historically Black Southern University, Blake invited me to join the ISE staff in Washington and lead the research effort needed to provide the analysis of the possible effects of the desegregation agenda on the HBCU community. Blake did all this in 30 minutes. I was struck by his sincerity and his passionate commitment; a trait for which he was admired by colleagues, friends and by those he opposed. I subsequently agreed to join him at ISE, which enjoyed the reputation as the premier “Black Intellectual Think Tank” for the HBCU community.

When I arrived in Washington during the summer of 1976, it became clear right away that my exalted view of Blake was confirmed by educators and policymakers alike. He clearly enjoyed his reputation as a major spokesperson on issues and concerns related to the welfare of the HBCU community. Whether it was improving the quality of teaching or solving infrastructure problems, Blake was out front on behalf of HBCUs, and he was unapologetic in doing so. Indeed, for Blake to do otherwise would have been out of character because his passion and commitment reflected an affinity for the long tradition of HBCU leaders who did more with less and who stood for principle, fairness, and above all for the educational advancement of African-Americans. Blake was a scholar with a superb intellect, a researcher and an advocate. He fulfilled the role as strategist, advisor and counselor to countless HBCU leaders and scholars, including Hugh Gloster, Vivian Henderson, R. D. Morrison, Harrison Wilson, Stephen Wright, Luther Foster, Sam Nabrit, Fred Patterson, Walter Washington, Maceo Nance, Luther Foster, Prezell Robinson, Martin Jenkins, Oswald Bronson, John Peoples, James Cheek, Benjamin Payton, Eldridge McMillan, Willa Player, Kenneth Tollett Edley, Ernest Holloway, Fred Humphries, Herman Branson, Sam Myers.

During the late 1960s and ’70s, Blake directed a program on curriculum reform efforts for HBCUs through the “13 College Curriculum” operated by ISE. He played a key role in the creation of the federal Title III and Upward Bound programs. He was in constant demand as an expert witness in the original Adams v. Richardson litigation, which later turned into the Ayers v. Fordice litigation, and was a founding father of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, the umbrella voice of the HBCU community. As a result of Blake’s efforts, NAFEO filed an amicus curiae brief in the Adams litigation that influenced the federal courts to refrain from ordering a remedy that penalized public HBCUs in any statewide desegregation planning process. In addition, Blake’s efforts influenced the U.S. Supreme Court’s Ayers decision in favor of Mississippi’s public HBCUs. Dr. Blake served with distinction as president of Clark College and paved the way for this institution to become Clark Atlanta University.

Blake also served during the Jimmy Carter administration as the chair of the U.S. Department of Education’s Advisory Committee on HBCUs and Predominantly Black Colleges and Universities. His work with this committee laid the foundation for the creation and establishment of the Presidential Executive Orders that began with Carter and have continued through the latest order, issued by President Bush to increase and expand HBCUs’ participation in federal programs. Among Blake’s outstanding traits was his exceptional ability to put into writing his thoughtful analysis and comments on issues related to equity and parity for HBCUs. He was always positive and never relented in working on behalf of the HBCU community, even in retirement.

Those of us who are HBCU graduates, supporters and persons who want justice for citizens who view the society from the bottom up owe Dr. Blake a debt of gratitude for his service, dedication and his commitment to educational equality. Had Blake not lived the life that he lived, the opportunities that now exist for minority students who enroll in HBCUs and other postsecondary institutions today would not exist, nor would HBCUs hold as much promise as the 21st century moves forward.

— Dr. Leonard L. Haynes III is director for the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education. He formerly served as U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education and as acting president of Grambling State University.


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