Digest Five – The Greatest HBCU Presidents

If there are qualities that distinguish good HBCU presidents from great ones, they are qualities sustained over long periods of time and transformative in the history of an institution. The elements that make for historic stature in HBCU culture run a common narrative thread – an ability to cultivate resources, to be a force against political and cultural opposition, to establish tradition and legacy among students and graduates, and to build the brand of an institution.

This Digest Five greatest of all time are open to interpretation, but there is no denial of their imprint on their respective universities, and the culture of historically black higher education.

Dr. Benjamin Mays – His work as a prominent American scholar, thought leadership on race relations and mentoring of Martin Luther King Jr. aside, Dr. Mays is widely considered the model of the HBCU presidency. His leadership of Morehouse College expanded the institution’s brand name, academic capacity and stature as a great American institution of higher education.

Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole – Dr. Cole led both Spelman College and Bennett College for Women to unmatched periods of financial gain and philanthropy, shaping the lives of millions of black women across the United States with scholarship and academic access. She received the largest gift ever donated to a historically black college, and with well over $160 million raised between her two presidential posts, she is regarded as the greatest HBCU fundraiser in history.

Dr. Frederick S. Humphries – The President Emeritus of Tennessee State University and Florida A&M University forged a career of academic development and political leveraging in Nashville and Tallahassee. Dr. Humphries helped TSU to become the first HBCU to merge with a predominantly white institution, and emerge as the existing college. At FAMU, he raised enrollment and championed a renaissance of the FAMU brand locally and nationally.

Dr. William R. Harvey – One of two active presidents on the list, Dr. Harvey is credited as the architect of the Home by the Sea. In 35 years as the entrepreneurial president, he transformed Hampton into an American powerhouse of education and service, and oversaw Hampton becoming the first HBCU to launch a NASA funded satellite in 2002, and eight years later opened the world’s largest proton therapy cancer treatment center.

Dr. Norman Francis – The living symbol of longevity and service, Dr. Francis is the longest-serving active American president. In his tenure, he has turned Xavier into the leading institution for African-Americans seeking to become physicians and medical professionals. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he led the university and helped lead the city of New Orléans to a new normal as chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.


    This list lacks any credibility without a mention of the architect of the legal team that won the landmark Brown vs. Topeka, KS Board of Education US Supreme Court decision, Dr. Mordechai Wyatt Johnson of Howard University. His team included giants Thurgood Marshal, Charles Hamilton Houston, and James Nabritt. And Dr. James Cheeks who was responsible for the lucrative gift of WHUR from the Washington Post, Howard University Hospital (formerly Freedman’s Hospital) from the feds, and numerous other enterprises…I’m just saying.

  • http://thatwilliam.com William S.

    If you don’t have Booker T. on the list, ranked #1, then your list is highly dubious my friend. He and a few others built Tuskegee by hand, in the model of Hampton. Talk about fundraising, nobody did a better job of swaying the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Ogdens and the industrial barons of his time. Booker T. Washington was always on the go raising money for Tuskegee. He actually worked himself to death and I do believe he served 40 years as the head of Tuskegee. He also privately funded the Plessy v. Ferguson legal team. He is the supreme model of the HBCU president as fundraiser and force for social change. Redo your list.

  • http://thatwilliam.com William S.

    I am pleased to see Dr. Harvey on the list (as a Hampton alum). He is a treasure. But…you must not know your history, if you don’t have Booker Taliaferro Washington as #1 first and foremost. Booker, as a teacher at Hampton and later the founder of Tuskegee, practically invented the night school movement. Almost the entire pioneer generation of black college students would not have been able to go to school had there had not been evening classes after work. You got to read your history man. Booker T. is the supreme example of the HBCU president as a force of change.

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  • Jaguar Nation

    I concur with Dr. Moore, Dr. Dolores R. Spikes, was an outstanding academician and leader of the Southern University Systerm office and former Chancellor of Southern University, New Orleans. In addition to being the first african american women to receive a Ph.D. in mathmatics from Louisana State University. She is accredited with also being one of the first women to lead (APLU) formerly known as NASULGC. I believe in recognizing those outstanding early leaders who made a major contributuion to HBCU’S, but lets be reminded when you start calling names give credit to those folks who labored in the vinyards of the new struggle of inclusion verse exclusion. Long Live HBCU’S.

  • Dr. Carlos J. Minor

    I can’t argue with list. I wrote my dissertation on Dr. Francis’ presidency (I am a XAVIER ALUM, Class of 1996) and studied Dr. Mays presidency during my research. We can certainly argue for more HBCU presidents to be included (Dr. Albert Manley, Dr. Horace Mann Bond, Dr. James Farmer, Sr., Dr. Rufus E. Clement, to name a few) but these are some great leaders, no doubt.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeffery.evans.399 Jeffery Evans

    How is this list complete without Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones of Grambling State University.

  • Meldon Hollis

    It appears that the selection was made by a group without a sense of history. The selection of worthy candidates should be renamed “The outstanding HBCU Presidents of the 21st century. Among the greatest of all time, one would have to include Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. Willa Player, Dr. Patterson (the founder of the UNCF) and Dr. Benjamin Mays.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kalestine Kalestine Butler

      My sentiments exactly. My first thought was, where are the pioneers, such as Dr. Bethune and Booker T. Washington. The five are great choices and I am sure the decision was a difficult, but we must not forget the pioneers. I am an alum of Florida A&M University. Thank you for including Dr. Humphries, he is to be lauded for his leadership and vision.

      • kevin

        I also agree, I am not a FAMU graduate. However, I must say Dr. Fred Humphries, affectionately known as(Hump) is and was the man. His contribution to higher education was astounding, not just to HBCU’s, but to the academy, his ability to provide opportunties to students was his legacy. Which in todays society is very hard to match by anyone in modern times.

  • Belmont1929

    Come on … why even deal in this. Isn’t it enough to know, that in the almost 2 century old histories of over 100 or so HBCU’s there have been a number of great women and men who shepherded us through difficult times, even when it seemed we’d fail and disappear. When I see a list like this my heart goes out to those early pioneers — those ‘presidents’ who used their own money, taught as well as managed, raised money and swept the floors when necessary. Making a way out of no way in rural backwaters, building communities as they helped young people develop the abilities most white Americans would not admit they possessed.

    These folks, neglected and ignored by society in their own day, shouldn’t have to suffer the same fate today. Constructing this kind of list (no disrespect to your favorites) really does a disservice to those histories.

    If you want a list make it an honor roll of the unsung as well as the celebrated and not a well intentioned, latter day popularity contest.

    I love HBCU Digest … by the way

  • http://internet August O. Curley, Sr.

    Dr. Mays had just come to Morehouse from Howard University when I entered as a freshman in 1946. I was one of the few students who was not a veteran. He’s the Greatest.

  • TSU Alumnus

    Dr. Walter S. Davis brought international attention to Tennessee State University with coach Temple and the many Olympians. He was also responsible for the expansion of the campus during a time that public HBCUs were not well received by state governments.

  • LJ

    Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune should be on this list.

  • LJ

    How can Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune not be mentioned?

  • http://lauraricedesigns.com Laura Rice Designs

    And, what about legendary Bennett College presidents: Dr. David Dallas Jones, who built the institution as a 4-year college for women and built the traditions that are unique to Bennett;
    and, Dr. Willa B. Player, his successor, who was the first black woman president of a 4-year institution and led the college to be one of the first, if not the first, to be accredited by the Southern Assn of Secondary Schools and Colleges (SASSC). She also opened the doors of the College for Dr. Martin Luther King to speak when other institution (church or otherwise) in Greensboro refused.

    And, what about Mary McLeod Bethune of Bethune-Cookman College?

    And, Mordecai Johnson of Howard?

    And, I’m sure there are others that are missed. Our HBCUs have an illustrious history. Please dig deeper.

  • Barbara R. Nicholson, Ph.D

    Unfortunately I did not attend an HBCU for any of my three degrees, however there is no female Prez that has accomplished and had greater impact than Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole both on university campuses and far beyond ( note her name is spelled correctly—unlike in the listing)!

  • Eugene Perry

    Really? No Frederick Douglass Patterson, former President of Tuskegee and founder of the UNCF? UNCF continues today as a critical source of annual income for a consortium of HBCUs. Patterson also founded the College Endowment Plan for which he was cited by US President Ronald Reagan in 1985. President Reagan also honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987.

    He also played a critical role in establishing the pilot training program at Tuskegee; hint Tuskegee Airmen.

    • Loretta

      apparently not, he’s not listed

  • William E. Moore, PhD

    I think you are on target with four of them. However, I would rate Dolores Spikes slightly above Johnetta Cole. She transformed Southern’s fiscal operations in the face of continuous challenges from state appropriations. She also provided visionary leadership in establishing first-rate PHD programs.Under her leadership, service learning and the African American Experience became graduation requirements and the nursing program became one of the top programs in the nation.