How Louis Stokes Changed HBCU History

I asked A. James Hicks, Director for the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation Program (LSAMP), if the national program to introduce black and minority students to careers in S.T.E.M. careers, was the congressman’s greatest legacy as a legislator and advocate.

It was a tough question, given Stokes’ advocacy for fair housing, governmental transparency and political capital building for black people over the course of his 30 years on Capitol Hill.

Dr. Hicks, a 1960 Tougaloo College graduate who went on to national acclaim as a researcher and Dean of the North Carolina A&T College of Arts and Sciences, paused before answering.

“It’s one of his greatest legacies, I know full well that he continued to be proud of what this program has done. I don’t know another program, in terms of human capital, that has done what this program has done. We would be hard pressed to find another program with as much impact.”

Since its inception in 1991, the LSAMP program has graduated more than 500,000 baccalaureate graduates in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. With more than 600 two and four-year campuses participating, and an average of 32,000 annual undergraduate, masters and doctoral graduates per year, it is the largest program of its kind to create a direct pipeline to S.T.E.M. careers for black students.

For HBCUs, which claim as alumni the overwhelming number of African-Americans earning doctorate degrees in S.T.E.M. disciplines, the LSAMP and McNair Scholars program are the nation’s most prominent support systems for advancing black participation in America’s most in-demand and highly segregated industries.

The LSAMP has also positioned HBCUs to serve as lead institutions for federally-funded research and professional development. Schools like Florida A&M, North Carolina A&T, Tennessee State and Jackson State are among more than 60 HBCUs nationwide enrolling students in the program, and lead regional alliances to bring funding and diversity to state S.T.E.M. research and development efforts.

The LSAMP has four tiers of funding focus — planning grants to establish centers of excellence, undergraduate recruitment and retention, support for community college students to transfer to four-year institutions for S.T.E.M. degree completion, and the Bridge to the Doctorate, a program which gives financial support to elite S.T.E.M. students seeking masters and doctoral-level training.

“It was an enriching program that several of us were a part of,” said Dr. Jelani Zarif, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the James Brady Urological Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Dr. Zarif, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Jackson State, and was funded for masters degree study through the LSAMP Bridge to the Doctorate initiative, says the LSAMP program played a major role in his success as a funded researcher with recent grant support from the UNCF-Merck fellowship and the National Institutes of Health.

“It helped to get me established in scientific research, and going on to earn a PhD. For my classmates and I, we were active participants in the program; we joined a research lab, went to seminars, conferences, and were able to present our research. We got to see people who looked like us at these conferences, and working with others, it was like a mentoring effect, because we saw it being done first-hand.”

In a letter to the campus community, Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick lauded Stokes’ legislative prowess in securing funding to construct libraries in support of the school’s law and health sciences schools, the latter which today bears the congressman’s name.

During his 30-year tenure in Congress, Representative Stokes authored the Research Centers in Minority Institutions Act to strengthen the research capability of African-American health. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he led initiatives that secured and increased funding for research, treatment, and prevention of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and AIDS, diseases that affect minority populations at disproportionate rates. Congressman Stokes developed the Minority Biomedical Research Support program and the Minority Access to Research Careers program, both designed to increase the number of minority scientists. He also served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. His leadership in Congress and our nation will have a profound positive impact for generations to come.

According to Dr. Hicks, the LSAMP impact today has impact beyond American borders. He cites the Native American and Pacific Island Research Experience, NAPIRE, as an examples of Stokes’ international impact.

“It was mind-boggling, the transition that these young undergrads went through over the 10-week period,” said Dr. Hicks. “They were being trained on how to carry out a research project in a field environment, and learned to do so in such a short period of time.”

Stokes never attended an HBCU, but his impact on back colleges being among the nation’s best hubs for S.T.E.M. training and development is a direct result of his compassion for black students, and the need for HBCUs to increase diversity and access. And when we consider black legislative icons who imagined a nation of possibilities for all people, Stokes should be remembered as one whose imagination will help to support HBCU survival and legitimacy, far beyond the days and weeks in which we will celebrate his life.

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