‘One Struggle, One Battle, One Survival’
Student think tank ponders the future, role of HBCUs
By David Hefner
It seemed fitting that more than 400 college students from across the country converged on Tennessee State University’s campus last month for the first HBCU “think tank.”
Until last year, historically Black TSU was bound by a federal court order to enroll an undergraduate population that was 50 percent White. It was, like several historically Black colleges and universities under court supervision, a reality check into the current state of HBCUs.
For TSU, the threat of literally becoming a “historically” Black university disappeared last year after the parties in a 32-year-old desegregation lawsuit came to an agreement under a consent decree (see Black Issues, Feb. 1, 2001). What remains, however, is the never-ending debate as to whether HBCUs are still needed and relevant in a country where legal segregation ended long ago.
It was against this backdrop that student leaders from 21 Black colleges traveled to Nashville at the request of TSU’s Student Government Association (SGA) and student NAACP chapter. Foremost on the minds of the students was the future of HBCUs amid declining budgets, increased competition and complacency among Black students.
If there were any questions about the direction of the HBCU Student Think Tank entitled “Ancestry, Legacy, Commitment,” it was perhaps put to rest by the motto — “One Struggle, One Battle, One Survival” — an apparent allusion to the mantra of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association — “One God! One Aim! One Destiny!”
“This country is making an extensive effort to make universities nonracially identifiable,” says TSU junior Jamie Riley, representative at-large of the SGA and founder and chair of the student think tank.
“It is up to us to make sure that our beloved HBCUs remain the spark of your ancestors’ dreams and hard work.”
An impressive mix of large and small, public and private HBCUs were represented during the Feb. 22-24 event, including Bowie State, Coppin State, Fisk, Howard, Kentucky State, Livingstone, Morehouse, Norfolk State and Winston-Salem State universities.
Students came for different reasons. Some were there to network and teach, others to learn more about HBCUs. One group from Paul Quinn College in Dallas came just to let people know they existed.
Red, black, green and gold balloons adorned the room where the opening dinner was held. In a room of 400 visiting students, few of them, if any, wore their school paraphernalia.
“We need to be awakened,” says Maleena Lawrence, 24, an HBCU-field coordinator with the Mid-Atlantic Region of Amnesty International.
“Beyond networking, I came here to really speak the truth about HBCUs and the need for them to stay around and not be sucked up in financial situations.”
Speakers at the event included poet Sonia Sanchez; founding Black Panther Party member Bobby Seale; poet Jessica Care Moore; and Ayinde Baptiste, now a 19-year-old Harvard University student who was thrust into the national spotlight at the age of 12 when he delivered an impressive speech at the 1995 Million Man March.
The think tank included 13 concurrent sessions ranging from topics such as “Greek Leadership Within” to “Maintaining a Spiritual Life While in College.”
Each session was offered twice in back-to-back formats, allowing participants to attend at least two different discussions.
A heated debate emerged among participants attending the session “Are HBCUs of Importance?”
Some students said HBCUs were either no longer necessary in an integrated world or were at risk of becoming obsolete because they primarily were serving a social function rather than an academic one.
“I feel that all HBCUs need to be integrated because they need to face the world,” says Kenneth Medley, vice president of the student government association at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
Many more, however, shared the belief that HBCUs remain relevant and critical for African Americans, citing a number of Black professionals who graduate from Black colleges.
“If you destroy HBCUs then you destroy the nurturing center for Black leaders,” says Enobong Alexander, a Howard University senior.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com