Yesterday’s HBCU Pride is Today’s HBCU Irrelevance

Watching Southern University’s Aeneas William, Tennessee State University’s Claude Humphrey, and Texas Southern University’s Michael Strahan go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame should have been a bittersweet moment for every enthusiast or advocate of historically Black colleges and universities. On one hand, it was a celebration of our greatest athletes and institutional ambassadors reaching the pinnacle of success in the nation’s most popular sport.
On the other hand, it was a stark reminder of the kind of talent we’ll likely never see again on an HBCU football field; a larger, more cruel reminder that what our institutions used to be has little bearing on what they are to be in the future.

Hall of fame pro football talent from the 1960s through the early 1990’s has not landed one HBCU a top-25 recruit in the last 20 years. And over that same period, hundreds of iconic graduates of HBCUs in a variety of industries have not helped HBCUs to remain as the premier destination for the nation’s top-achieving African-American students.

The fallacy of desegregation, disparate state and federal funding, and a lost presence in Black American pop culture have rendered the HBCU as a second-class institution in the eyes of many Americans, and sadly, most Black Americans.  With more choices for higher education, less public funding going to HBCUs than to PWI counterparts, and the most salient elements of HBCU culture being centered around marching bands and protests of civil injustice, the view of today’s HBCU is not unlike it was 70 years ago; a school for those who can’t go elsewhere, or for those who are so pro-Black they are closed to considering larger, whiter institutions.

Racial pride is a funny thing. For some, it stirs a belief in the HBCU mission, and its nurturing and motivation for the modern Black student. For others, racial pride endears an attitude of entitled access; that we are good enough and can perform well at any school, anywhere; and don’t have to be relegated to institutional relics of oppression and underperformance.

Neither perspective is wrong, but both can be harmful when twisted to fit the needs and identity of each individual Black family and Black student. If you love your HBCUs but can’t send it $100 a year, you are keeping your school in neutral when it comes to research and community support. If you think HBCUs are second-class institutions, you’re buying into an incomplete perspective on Black institutions, how and why they select certain leaders, how and why they are funded.

HBCU enrollment, giving numbers and struggle-oriented news headlines don’t lie – the marriage of racial pride and higher education has thoroughly and irrevocably ended.  And just because that marriage produced beautiful children – stellar HBCU athletics, the Black American middle class, and Black leaders of civil rights, industry and education – doesn’t mean that the marriage is alive and well.

It’s time for those children to deal with the split and to learn to take care of mom and dad while brokering respect between the two estranged parties. No one person can mobilize this effort; it takes thousands of people making one choice in doing for the HBCU what the government doesn’t have to do; fund it beyond mere operation and subsistent functionality.

We shouldn’t talk about what HBCUs should do to make us want to attend games; we should buy the season tickets and hold institutions accountable. We shouldn’t chide Black students for not having interest in HBCUs, we should begin bring them to campus events and tours starting at the age of five and teach them why HBCUs are valuable.

Waiting for HBCUs to  ‘do right’ or ‘do better’ before giving our support only prolongs the ‘do wrong’ culture and resentment of the same.

At the same time, HBCUs must reverse the course of Black flight to PWIs and online colleges with substantive marketing and advertising. They must convince alumni that athletics is the rising tide that floats all boats for institutional profile and regional attraction by engaging them in promotional and administrative think tanks.

And most of all, HBCU leaders cannot make the fatal mistake of believing that emulating PWI processes, structures and culture is the best solution for improving HBCUs. PWI processes were born out of and are maintained by affluence and access; HBCU processes were born out of poverty and necessity. Nothing is worse than driving a campus into despair believing that struggle is a byproduct of a state of mind than a monthly bank statement.

Individuals and institutions have a lot to do in turning our attention and resources inwards in benefit of Black colleges, but overzealous appreciation for what we had before we lost it all is fool’s gold.

We celebrated Aeneas, Claude and Michael over the weekend; now its time to go find the three players who will replace them 20 years from now.


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16 comments
    1. I have to disagree there is still talent on the HBCU playing field and there always will be some diamonds in the ruff that will get there shot at the NFL and ultimately make it to the HOF. The issue is the scouting of the talent. The NFL knows there is talent on the HBCU ranks that is why they show up at pro day, but getting a shot at the NFL is always been bias and changing that culture still remains. HBCU’s still do not get the respect in athletics historically and present day.

      1. Have HBCU’s been competitive enough in terms of winning national championships to warrant any respect-at the FCS or Division II level? In Track and Basketball yes, but not necessarily in football. Consider that no HBCU from the SWAC has ever won a FCS playoff game (0 wins, 19 losses over 3 decades). While FAMU won the initial I-AA championship in 1978, the conference has had only 3 or 4 wins total in the playoffs since then. The SIAC and CIAA has not been much better until Winston-Salem’s success over the past 2 years. There are great individual athletes at HBCU’s-especially in the skill positions, but the team success in defeating PWI’s is lacking in college football.

  1. I do agree with the comments “if you love your HBCU and cant send a $100 a year back than your belief is that HBCU are second class institutions”.

    1. Well written, provocative, and interesting piece HOWEVER I lament the gross generalization. NOT ALL PWIs are the same and NOT ALL HBCUs are the same. Some HBCUs are better than PWIs, some PWIs are better than HBCUs, some HBCUs are better than other HBCUs, some PWIs are better than other PWIs. And I didn’t appreciate that knock on HBCU culture. Marching bands are usually the main source of school spirit on every campus, have you not seen students and alumni “go crazy” as fight songs etc are being played on ESPN? Also, I witnessed only a handful of protests on civil injustice on my HBCU campus so I’m not sure where you’re getting that from. And why did you not mention that PWI culture is usually centered around wild partying, drinking, and hooking up b/c it’s uhh true, I’ve seen it … so that’s better?
      As a HBCU alumnus (Te…xas Southern University) and current grad student at a huge multi-million dollar endowed PWI, I really don’t see much difference in the education quality. I feel like both schools I’m affiliated with are exceptional and have the capacity to produce competent and savvy graduates. But it’s articles like this that scares countless smart black students away from even bothering to do research or visit the HBCUs. But despite that minor setback many HBCUs are here to stay, can compete, and will improve ….. I’ve seen extraordinary progress at several HBCUs (including my alma mater may I add) and I don’t foresee all HBCUs being irrelevant in your or my lifetime. Clearly you’re not well-abreast on HBCU history, culture, and progression so I implore you to please educate yourself and look beyond the surface. Look beyond basic data because it rarely tells the whole story. For example, there are several studies in favor of HBCUs that show graduates from HBCUs fare better than their PWI black counterparts culturally, mentally, financially (PWIs usually way overpriced), and academically.

      1. If you feel this way ” feel like both schools I’m affiliated with are exceptional and have the capacity to produce competent and savvy graduates”
        Why didn’t you go to an HBCU for grad school?

          1. Ok. I am having the same problem finding a PhD program that I want at an HBCU, so I feel you. I’m in no rush so I can wait.

      2. Show me a campus in the California State University system that is a PWI…..and I’ll offer you a great bargain on a big iron structure in Paris…..

        1. You’re correct. However, in “The Truth’s” defense; should HBCU’s really consider the California State University systems competitors as the population of African-Americans in most Cal-State locations is negligible compared to the Southeast, Midwest, or East Coast? Perhaps the Southeastern Conference universities or Ivy League schools are more direct competition to HBCU’s as only one or two HBCU’s are located west of the Mississippi River anyhow.

        2. I would like to think that the schools in the CSU system are noteworthy but so are several HBCUs. But noteworthy public HBCUs tend to be a better bargain because their cost of living plus tuition & fees are more affordable and won’t put you in too much debt compared to these Cali schools which is why so many Cali students leave the state (My whole dorm hallway was full of Cali kids, most of whom had their out of state fees waived). So what’s your point?!

      3. Actually, the author was correct to point out the overemphasis of the marching bands at HBCU games. Over 2+ decades as a student and administrator at 2 HBCU’s, I’ve seen between 30% to 50% of the crowd depart the game after the halftime show-something I’ve never seen once at a PWI that has appeared on ESPN. Getting exited about the school fight song is inconsequential, leaving football games (unless the score margin is lopsided) right after halftime is insulting to the student-athletes. The author was actually kinder about his band remarks than many others could/should be.

        1. I never seen that and I been around HBCU culture for over 2+ decades as well. For one, the bands plays in the remaining quarters and there’s something called the 5th Qtr where bands pull out their best stuff for battle. So again, I have no idea what you’re talking about …. band fans stay in most instances.
          The main overemphasis I hate at HBCUs is that on “greek-life”. For example, I went to our rival game last weekend and I seen “greeks” look as if they org threw up on them. Not only that but I seen several with the nerve to bring pink&greek/crimson&cream pom poms as if they were at yet another ridiculous step show. The obsession I see about being “greek” is nauseating and was definitely an insult to the student-athletes last week. They were strolling, doing their calls (vulgar calls may I add), they were just a major distraction from the game at hand. This was a time for us to show school spirit by wearing school colors and supporting our team etc, you’ll never see this at a Texas A&M game etc.

          1. I too also see the overemphasis on Greek life that you mention and it has cost many students outstanding scholarships/internship opportunities-especially in the sophomore year.
            The issue regarding crowds leaving games early has been a major topic of conversation among football players for decades-even impacting recruiting visits of prospective student athletesathletes at times. The 5th Quarter exhibition you speak of usually requires both competing schools to bring their bands, which only occurs for 2 of 5 home games at my current school-Lincoln University PA. With budgets for travel tightening up at many of our schools, many regular season games are played with only the home team’s band present.

          2. The greek system terrorizing goes deeper than that. I remember this one guy who was kicked off line weeks before the last day whom committed suicide. But of course only all of us in the know knew why and unfortunately he’s one of countless others who’ve done the same. I hate greek life, for more reasons than one. Alot of people build their self-worth on being greek or making the line, it’s terrible, ridiculous, and unhealthy.
            BTW, 5th quarter happens without an opposing band as well. I’ve seen it so many times, so once again band heads are less the problem. A bigger problem is the talent pool of HBCU players, we are extremely lucky to get talented players when it use to be the norm. Some games are so hard to watch with the high number of dropped passes, missed tackles, and dumb penalities.

  2. It is actually sad. We (black folks) are losing our identity. There was once a time when we had our own identity and were a proud people but now we are being lumped together with Hispanics as “People of Color”. After a while HBCUs will be non-existent and no one seems to care. To at once be the largest minority we should have way more wealth and influence in this country. We get all excited about small wins like if one person makes it to the white house. But the other 2 million of us are collected welfare and going to jail. People better wake up and take back the respect we once had as a people. Black folks need to realize, just because a white person acknowledges you doesn’t make you one of them.

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