Professor Derryn Moten at Alabama State University. Photo by Julie Bennett

The black cosmos: Why I teach at an HBCU

I am a union leader of Midwestern birth who happily lives and teaches in the Deep South. I am what some people might call a human paradox; politically independent, I live in a predominately “red” state. I teach at a historically black school located in the cradle of the Confederacy and the birthplace of the modern civil rights movement. For the last 20 years I have called Montgomery, Ala., home.

Growing up in Gary, Ind., I came of age politically during the halcyon days of afros, Motown and the Jackson 5. In 1968, Richard Hatcher became the first black mayor of Gary, and Carl Stokes became the first black mayor of Cleveland. Mayor Hatcher helped convene Gary’s National Black Political Convention at my high school, Westside High School, during my freshman year there, to create an independent black political agenda.

In nearby Chicago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson ran Operation Breadbasket, which subsequently became Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), which then changed to People United to Serve Humanity. PUSH had annual expos at Chicago’s McCormick Place, assembling the largest conglomeration of the black diaspora outside of Harlem. Vendors and black nationalists hawked wares of the motherland and preached neo-Garveyism. These messages reinforced the jeremiads of the Nation of Islam headquartered in the Windy City and its Honorable Elijah Muhammad. The Nation turned Chicago’s South Side into a cultural black Islamic mecca featuring mosques, banks, restaurants, food markets and dry cleaners. These were heady days when James Brown’s 1968 tune, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” became not just an anthem for my friends and me, but a worldview.

Howard University’s Founders Library, courtesy Howard University

Much to my father’s chagrin, I decided to attend Howard University in the tenth grade. Neighbors warned my parents that the Washington, D.C., historically black university would turn me into a black militant. Each year, Ebony magazine featured America’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in a special issue. Howard stood out in my mind; it counted 40 Ph.D.s among its 271 faculty members in 1932, prompting some to boast that the namesake of Union General Oliver Otis Howard had “the largest aggregation of Negro scholars found in any one educational institution in the civilized word.” As the only bonafide comprehensive research HBCU, Howard distinguished itself from its black private HBCU counterparts in one other important way: While also a private institution, it gets an annual appropriation from the federal government.

My undergraduate years introduced me to the breadth and depth of the black cosmos. Howard students hailed from across the United States, its territories, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. Our professors were fiercely proud race women and men and renowned scholars. They would have agreed with Dr. Alain Locke, the father of the New Negro Movement, when he opined, “If we are a race we must have a race tradition, and if we are to have a race tradition, we must keep and cherish it as a priceless — yes as a holy thing — and above all not be ashamed to wear the badge of our tribe.”

As an English major, I attended many a class in Locke Hall. Most of my Howard professors were strict taskmasters who demanded our best and who did not suffer fools gladly. And while I grew spiritually and intellectually, I did not become the anarchist or black militant that some of our neighbors back home feared. I did become a unionist, coincidentally, as a graduate from the very campus where the American Federation of Teachers chartered its first higher education local. Even then, critics debated the efficacy of attending Howard even though historically white institutions (HWIs) in 1981 integrated their campuses with seemingly “all deliberate speed.”

Section 322 of the Higher Education Act defines a historically black college and university as one that existed before 1964 with a historic and contemporary mission to educate African Americans while keeping admissions open to all. The fact that HBCUs were historically black or are predominantly black today was a matter of state law or “racial instinct,” as Justice Henry Brown wrote in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Alabama State University, where I teach, offered a scholarship to induce white students to attend ASU. There are three antebellum HBCUs: Pennsylvania’s Cheney College, founded in 1837, and Lincoln College, founded in 1854, and Ohio’s Wilberforce College, founded in 1856.

In 1968, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges issued a report titled “Investment in Opportunity,” referring to HBCUs as “forgotten colleges” that receive little to no private support. The report noted, “The Negro public college will doubtless change. But it will not die. It has a vital role to play in extending educational opportunity. The future of these colleges lies beyond serving only one race.” White enrollment at HBCUs increased 65 percent between 1976 and 2001 according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The forces that once prevented blacks by fiat from receiving an education now call for the elimination of the very institutions black folk created to educate themselves. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in Black Reconstruction that “Public education for all at public expense, was, in the South, a Negro idea.” The current 103 HBCUs are not on a level playing field with HWIs. And now that many Southern states endure receding revenues, some state legislators and state tax payers want to save state coffers by merging or closing black public colleges and universities. As a colleague of mine wryly noted, “It’s expensive to be a racist, you have to have two of everything.”

Opponents accuse HBCUs of being anachronistic, yet those of us who teach at them know first-hand the dire need for our schools.

Just 4 percent of U.S. colleges and universities, HBCUs graduate 22 percent of African Americans who receive bachelor’s degrees, including 50 percent of African Americans receiving degrees from teacher education programs.

At least a third of all blacks receiving undergraduate degrees in STEM fields graduate from HBCUs. Furthermore, both private and public HBCUs tend to be more affordable for many black students and their families.

To be sure, HBCUs have room for improvement in terms of fundraising, fiscal management, governance and graduation attainment. Like their HWI counterparts, a number of HBCUs are top-heavy in administration while over-relying on contingent and part-time faculty. These conditions led to the inception of the AFT Faculty-Staff Alliance at Alabama State University chartered by AFT in 1992.

HBCUs are not monolithic, but one commonality among HBCUs is that they open their doors to many students who otherwise might not have an opportunity to attend college.

When we educate a student we empower that student as well as empower her/his family.

HBCUs produced the black middle class. HBCUs are not better than HWIs. They are different, though, and that difference is tangible. We believe in latent achievers, and we believe in latent achievement.

I model what I teach to my students. The struggles I cover in my history classes my students and I see outside our classroom windows. The parsonage where the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family resided is three blocks from the entrance of our campus. Members of the Women’s Political Council who helped orchestrate the Montgomery bus protest walked the same hallways I walk each weekday. The spot where Jefferson Davis took his oath as president of the Confederate States of America is a stone’s throw away from my office. These are some of the reasons why I teach at an HBCU: because history matters.

Derryn Moten is a professor of history and acting department chair of the Department of History and Political Science at Alabama State University. He is co-president of the AFT Faculty-Staff Alliance at ASU Local 4866, southern regional vice president of the Alabama AFL-CIO and co-chair of the AFT Higher Education Program and Policy Council.