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Celebrating the History And Contributions of Black Colleges

Celebrating the History And Contributions of Black Colleges

By Ronald Roach

I’ll Find a Way or Make One: A Tribute to Historically Black Colleges and Universities
By Juan Williams and Dwayne Ashley
Amistad (Harper Collins), 2004
pp. 480, $35.00, Hardcover
ISBN: 0-06-009453-2

In I’ll Find a Way or Make One: A Tribute to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, authors Juan Williams and Dwayne Ashley chart a useful history and guide to the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities. That HBCUs can claim a host of illustrious graduates, such as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, sociologist/ writer/civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, philosopher Alain Locke, former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, talk show host Oprah Winfrey, film director Spike Lee, and civil rights activist and Georgia congressman John Lewis, represents only part of the HBCU story as this book well documents. Written as a commemorative book, the volume contains photographs, personal memoir, an overall narrative and anecdotal vignettes.
The publisher trumpets that the book “is the first of its kind — a groundbreaking retrospective.” A noted journalist, Williams is the author of Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary and the PBS series companion volume “Eyes on the Prize.” Ashley is president of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, which raises scholarship funds for and provides technical support to historically Black public colleges and universities.
In the narration, the earliest higher education institutions for Black students emerge in the 19th century not too long after the first primary school efforts had taken root in places outside the slaveholding South. Even before the Civil War, the idea of establishing colleges that would educate Black students had support among free Blacks and progressive Whites. Only a few Blacks prior to the war were earning degrees from White institutions in the north because the vast majority of them did not accept Black students. The authors lay out the pre-Civil War histories of the institutions that would become Cheyney State University, the first HBCU in the nation, Lincoln University and Wilberforce University.
In the aftermath of the Civil War through the turn of the century, Black college foundings saw their greatest period unfold. By 1900, 83 of the more than 100 HBCUs had been established, mostly in the South, according to the authors. The coming of the new century also saw a shift among the HBCUs as they shifted their curriculums from emphasizing liberal arts to industrial and vocational education. “As White southerners began to exert more influence among federal lawmakers, federal funds were increasingly awarded to HBCUs that promoted vocational training over liberal arts education,” according to the book.
Americans are somewhat familiar with this shift due in part to the legendary debate that emerged between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, the early leader of what is now Tuskegee University, over the most appropriate route for Black social and intellectual development. A reactionary, Jim Crow South was loathe to tolerate Black colleges whose graduates might challenge segregation as did Du Bois in his writings. Washington, who is known for advocating the industrial education path, became the most powerful Black man in the nation due to his ties to White philanthropists and political leaders, and his willingness to downplay liberal arts learning and political empowerment within the Black community.
The 20th century would see the triumph of civil rights and political equality under the law for Blacks, thus unleashing an unprecedented era of change for HBCUs that continues to this day. With desegregation, a number of public Black colleges have become or are becoming majority White institutions. Several private Black colleges have been or are threatened with closure over financial hardship. In recent decades, Black colleges have come under scrutiny and questioned as to whether they should continue to exist given that Blacks are free to pursue higher education opportunities at any institution.
Taking a pro-HBCU stance, the authors cite statistics demonstrating the strategic role Black colleges and universities play in conferring degrees to African Americans. “Seventy-five percent of African Americans with Ph.D.s earn (undergraduate degrees) from HBCUs, as do 46 percent of Black business executives, 50 percent of Black engineers, 80 percent of Black federal judges, and 85 percent of Black doctors,” they write. Overall, I’ll Find a Way or Make One: A Tribute to Historically Black Colleges and Universities does a credible job in documenting the unique contributions of HBCUs and the need for their continued existence. 

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