Black colleges bring soaring past, uncertain future

It's a huge subject -- much too big for one documentary or one fictional series: The historically black colleges bring more than 150 years of soaring history and complicated sociology.

Still, a PBS documentary Monday (Feb. 19) is a good starting point; so is the fictional "The Quad," which returns to cable's BET on Feb. 27. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

At first, the idea
was modest: Slaves were free now, but uneducated. Create some
colleges for vocational skills.

Then things got much
bigger. Historically black colleges “are producing an extraordinary
number of new leaders in this country,” said Michael Lomax, head of
the United Negro College Fund.

Their graduates
include icons of the past – Martin Luther King, Jr., Booker T.
Washington, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois – and present,
including Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee and a new wave of elected
officials. The schools are “carrying the responsibility and the
weight of producing black scientists overall,” said Mary Schmidt
Campbell, president of Spelman College.

They also face
plenty of problems, which TV viewers can see via a documentary (on
PBS Monday) or cable fiction (“The Quad,” returning Feb. 27).
Enrollment is down; money is tight.

Such problems
confront schools of all types, Campbell said. “Over the past 10 or
20 years, there have been many colleges and universities that have
gone out of business. HBCU's (historically black colleges and
universities) are no different.”

Overall, their
impact has been shrinking. The Pew Research Center found that in
2015, 8.5 percent of all black college students were at HBCU's; in
1980, the percentage was twice as high.

The total number of
such schools has shrunk from a reported 121 in the 1930s to 102
today. Some are wobbling; the PBS film briefly visits Morris Brown
College, which once had 2,500 students over 34 Atlanta acres; now,
after a financial scandal, it has fewer than 50.

Still, there's the
flip side. “Spelman is thriving,” Campbell said. “Howard is
thriving, Hampton is thriving, Xavier is thriving. There is a whole
slate of HBCU's that are thriving.”

And the overall
effect is still huge. “This is a big community – 102
institutions, over 300,000 students,” Lomax said. “They produce
50,000 graduates a year.”

And in a way, their
success helped create the problem: Thurgood Marshall, from the
prestigious Howard Law School, successfully fought the concept of
“separate-but-equal” education; his court victories opened up
fresh possibilities for black students.

Where do the HBCU's
stand, in an era of wider choices? Some people see them as starter

“About 70 percent
of the students ... are low-income,” Lomax said, “versus about 34
percent of all colleges .... I would say around 50 percent are the
first in their familes to attend.”

But others see them
as much more: Given lots of choices, they still prefer the HBCU;
consider three people who chose Florida A&M:

-- Anika Noni Rose
was a lawyer's daughter from Connecticut who wanted a fresh
experience. “It was probably the only time in my life when I was
completely surrounded by my own culture,” she said. Now she's a
Tony-winning actress, playing an HBCU president in “The Quad.”

-- Roy Wood Jr., a
comedian and “Daily Show” correspondent, chose an HBCU school,
just as his parents did. “I'm a 17-year-old kid and I need to
prepare myself for a different America than most white kids will
see,” he recalled.

-- Peyton Alex
Smith plays a “Quad” student and aspiring rapper. “I've never
been around that much black excellence,” he said of his Florida A&M
years. “Everybody wanted to succeed.”

That's typical of
the black-college experience, Campbell said. “It's a safe place,
and it's also a demanding place. HBCU's have very high expectations.”

That wasn't always
the case, said Stanley Nelson, producer-director of the PBS film.
Many of the schools had white leaders, strict rules and low
expectations. The extreme was the Fisk president in the 1920s. “He
was afraid of black sex .... He had canceled fraternities, canceled
some of the sports teams.”

Then the school
invited Du Bois – a Fisk graduate whose daughter was a student
there – to be a speaker. “Du Bois goes there and ... says, 'Go
out in the world and be wonderful.' He tells the students to protest
... The students hold this massive strike and the president is

It began an era of
unrest – first aimed at the colleges, then at society. “Black
colleges have always been politically engaged,” Campbell said,
starting with “the lunch counter sit-ins in the early '60s.”

Now this isn't
always politics from the outside. “This January,” Lomax said,
“four new mayors in this country are graduates of historically
black colleges.”

Three are in cities
– New Orleans, Atlanta, Birmingham – once segregated. The other
is St. Paul, Minn.

Melvin Carter grew
up there, the son of a St. Paul cop and a county commissioner. He
graduated from Florida A&M, then returned to Minnesota for
graduate school and stayed.

Now he's mayor of a
city that the 2010 census listed as 60 per cent white and 16 per cent
African American. HBCU grads have gone far from the vocational-school

-- “Independent
Lens: Tell Them We Are Rising,” 9-10:30 p.m. Monday, PBS

-- “The Quad,”
10 p.m. Tuesdays, BET; it returns Feb. 27