As we celebrate Black History Month, it is a wonderful time to reflect and recognize historically black colleges and universities’ (HBCUs) contributions to society. Recently, HBCUs have been in the news since the election of the vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris, who is graduate of Howard University.
Historically, HBCUs were established, beginning in the 1830s, with the mission to educate primarily African Americans. Prior to their establishment, African Americans were generally denied the opportunity to attend predominately white institutions (PWIs), particularly in the South. Thus HBCUs became the main institutions for educating African Americans at the postsecondary level.
After the Civil Rights Movement and the integration of schools in the 1960s, PWI’s saw an increase in African American student enrollment which led to a decrease in enrollment at HBCUs, forcing some HBCUs to close due to low enrollment and other factors.
Today the question is asked, “Are HBCUs relevant or needed now in an integrated society” since the majority Black college students are enrolled in PWIs? I would say the answer is “yes” for a variety of reasons. Some African American scholars would argue that HBCUs are just as relevant today, maybe more, as in the past.
Dr. Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), authored a blog titled, “Six Reasons HBCUs Are More Important than Ever.” The blog emphasized the importance of HBCUs for African Americans in terms of cost, culturally friendly and supportive environment, and preparation for professional success.
HBCUs continue to rank high in producing African Americans students who pursue and complete graduate and professional degrees, graduate with baccalaureate degrees in life science, physical sciences, mathematics and engineering, and hold a doctorate and law degrees.
Dr. Elwood Robinson, chancellor of Winston Salem State University in North Carolina,, states that HBCUs
“Provide a culture of caring – a culture that prepares students to contribute to their communities, a culture that builds confidence and that gives them the essential skills they need to cultivate a career.”Dr. Elwood Robinson, chancellor of Winston Salem State University in North Carolina
As a professor of public health education at an HBCU, North Carolina Central University, for the past 15 years, I too believe that HBCUs are relevant today.
HBCUs, traditionally, have experience and are uniquely positioned to educate first-generation African American college students in part due to their commitment to excellence in teaching and service. HBCUs provide an environment where African American college students can flourish – safe from campus racial discrimination, supportive faculty and staff, and a strong sense of pride and confidence, which can lead to academic and professional success.
Lastly, HBCUs have a major role in the Black community as trusted institutions with strong relationships tied to those local communities.
HBCUs are a great resource to address the health disparity gap and improve health equity. For example, North Carolina Central University was recently funded to address COVID related disparities in underserved communities. For more information visit https://www.nccu.edu/news/nccu-awarded-1m-funding-new-covid-19-project.
In addition to addressing health disparities, HBCUs are important resources for increasing and diversifying the public health professions (Mincey & Gross, 2017).
SOPHE recognizes the importance of developing a strong partnership with HBCUs to continue to diversify its membership and the public health education profession.
As the incoming president of SOPHE (April 2021), one my top priorities is to increase HBCUs involvement with SOPHE. In January 2021, we created SOPHE’s HBCUs Advisory Council to increase membership from HBCUs and increase racial minorities in leadership positions within SOPHE. Additionally, the council will provide guidance on addressing health disparities and improving health inequities among racial minorities.
SOPHE’s HBCU Advisory Council includes representation from Alabama State University, Florida A&M University, Grambling State University, Johnson C. Smith University, Norfolk State University, South Carolina State University, and Winston Salem State University.
In keeping with Black History Month, I would like to recognize a few notable African Americans who graduated from HBCUs:
- Dr. David Satcher (Morehouse College), former Surgeon General of the United States and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Dr. Joycelyn Elders (Philander Smith College), former Surgeon General of the United States
- Dr. Ronald McNair (North Carolina A&T State University), accomplished physicist and NASA astronaut
Also, I would like to recognize two past presidents of SOPHE who are HBCU graduates, Dr. William Darity, Shaw University and North Carolina Central University, and Dr. Collins Airhihenbuwa, Tennessee State University. I would like to highlight Mary E. Hawkins, North Carolina Central University, who served for 14 years as the chair of the former national recognition program for standalone baccalaureate program in health education (SABPAC).
In closing, HBCUs still matter! There are more than 100 HBCUs, many in the southern region of the United States. For a list of HBCUs, visit http://hbcuradionet.whur.com/hbcu-list/.
Dr. Deborah A. Fortune
Mincey, K. & Gross, T. (2017). Training the next generation: Developing health education skills in undergraduate public health students at a historically black college and university. Frontier in Public Health, 5:274. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2017.00274