For America’s historically Black colleges and universities it has been a banner year. Over the last 12 months, HBCUs have taken in a record fundraising haul. Famous alumni like Vice President Kamala Harris, Sen. Raphael Warnock and Stacey Abrams have taken center stage in the political theater, and the institutions that have long been the backbone of the African American educational community have earned newfound respect.
United Negro College Fund president Michael Lomax says that his organization, which funds scholarships for more than 60,000 students at over 1,100 colleges and universities across the country and raises money for 37 HBCUs, has seen a “groundswell of support.” Donations to the UNCF have risen by 400 percent over the last year, with the organization adding over 100,000 new donors. According to UNCF’s website, its operating support to HBCU member schools “keep tuition down to a rate that is 26 percent lower than tuition at other comparable schools.”
“HBCUs are deeply rooted in the Black communities … just like the Black church, just like the Black family,” Lomax, a Morehouse College alum, said in an interview with Yahoo News, “They are there for those who think they are the best school for them. They [HBCUs] don’t question their ability. They assume all of the students can achieve at high levels. They believe that our students are whole. They help build their confidence and prepare them with very strong education to compete in the larger world that they will go out into.”
One standout donor was philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who alone donated $500 million in 2020 to HBCUs. The beneficiaries, including Howard University, Xavier University and Hampton University, all credited Scott with giving the largest individual donation to the schools ever made. But other big donations made headlines as well. Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings and his wife, Patty Quillin, committed another$120 million to HBCU scholarships.
Lomax points to the death of George Floyd and the nationwide protests for helping raise awareness for the need to address racial inequities.
“What we saw, particularly with the murder of George Floyd was an outpouring of public belief that racial inequality, injustice and racism had to end and one of the ways that they wanted to make sure our country changed for the better was to support students going to college and particularly students going to historically black colleges,” Lomax said.
While that financial support is crucial to sustain the institutions, for HBCU graduates and students, the inclusion of the marching band from Howard University, Harris’s alma mater, at January’s presidential inauguration was perhaps an even bigger point of pride.
“As a young black boy from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with limited means and resources, I never would have imagined that I would have had the same opportunity to attend the prestigious Howard University,” Terrell Brown, a former student and cheerleader at Howard University told Yahoo News. “Watching the HU Showtime Marching Band escort Vice President Harris — the same band that escorted us into Saturday football games — was a humbling moment. I was instantly reminded that it doesn’t matter where your journey begins.”
For the millions of HBCU alumni who have matriculated at one of the 100-plus HBCUs across the country and the Virgin Islands since the 1837 founding of the school that would become Cheyney University, an education from a college catering to African American students helped establish the Black middle class, Lomax said.
The public profile of HBCUs rose dramatically in 2020 thanks to the political success of some of their famous alumni, including Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House member and organizer credited with helping turn her home state blue in the 2020 elections.
“I graduated from Spelman College in 1995 — 25 years ago — but I first stepped on campus in 1991. I was 17 and ready to change the world, and I knew Spelman would be a part of it,” Abrams told Spelman students on a virtual call ahead of the November election. “When I was 17, I set up my first voter registration table helping to sign up people to vote long before I was old enough to do so.”
Abrams’s efforts in Georgia helped win a U.S. Senate seat for Raphael Warnock, a graduate of Morehouse College and the former pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
“Dr. King’s spirit recruited me to Morehouse. I was born a year after his death, but I was inspired by him early on,” Warnock told the Grio. “I wanted to be in this place that focused not only on information but inspiration; focused not only on training the head but tuning the heart toward the goal of making a difference in the world.”
Research shows that Black students thrive at HBCUs. A 2015 study conducted by Gallup compared Black students who attended predominantly white colleges with those at HBCUs and found that the latter group reported receiving more mentorship and being better prepared for the challenges working in a “predominantly white world.”
Washington has also begun to recognize the importance of HBCUs. Passed by Congress in March, the Federal Cares Act included $577 million in funding for HBCUs affected by the coronavirus pandemic in addition to the $353 million allocated by the Department of Education through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.
The Biden administration has pledged to prioritize investing in HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, laying out plans for a $70 billion agenda for various initiatives like funding, increasing the federal Pell grants, debt relief and another round of stimulus for these schools.
“People need to understand the power and importance of historically Black colleges and universities in our country’s history and the work they continue to do. I think when they do understand that, more Americans will see that they are a vital part of our ecosystem,” Lomax said. “With a vice president who attended Howard University, with mayors across this country who attended historically Black colleges, with civic leaders who are fighting against voter suppression and for civic engagement like Stacey Abrams, a Spelman alumna, I think more people are recognizing that these are incredible institutions worthy of investment and worthy of public support.”
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