Across the United States, there are 107 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs. Among them, only two reside in Ohio: Central State University and Wilberforce University.
The lack of HBCUs in the state reduces the options from which Black students can choose, causing many to decide if they want to pay for out-of-state tuition, or forgo an HBCU entirely.
Most of the current HBCUs in the country were founded after the Civil War, creating schools that provided education specifically for African American students.
Akil Houston, associate professor of African American Studies, graduated from an HBCU. Houston said the time period in which HBCUs were created must not be forgotten in the discussion of their purpose.
“I think one of the things that might get lost was that they were created in a period where segregation was rampant,” Houston said. “Some of the first schools were set up out of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was purposely designed to educate newly freed African Americans. The primary purpose of them was to not necessarily educate Black people to move up, but to make them better laborers.”
In his experience at an HBCU, Houston said he felt his connections with his professors was particularly strong, allowing for more intimate connections to be built and professional relationships to develop even beyond graduation.
Presently, the purpose of HBCUs has shifted to be focused heavily on providing the necessary education for Black individuals, as well as creating a comfortable and understanding cultural environment.
Maurice Swift, a senior studying public health pre-med, described his view of HBCUs as a support system for underrepresented minorities.
“Throughout history, there has been a lot of systemic racism in public institutions and private institutions of higher education,” Swift said. “And HBCUs are meant to allow Black people to be them and not code switch or have to hide under another persona to fit in.”
Swift said this differs from a Predominantly White Institution, or PWI, because this same support system is not present, where many educators at a PWI do not understand the need to reach out to Black students or other underrepresented minorities.
“(At an HBCU), you feel more comfortable going to professors, administrators and you feel like your concerns are actually heard, whereas a PWI, Black students or other students of color, face racial incidents every school year, and you feel like nothing’s being done,” Swift said.
Despite the importance of HBCUs, Swift said they are often overlooked in the high school setting due to most education systems being centered around a white perspective.
“Our administrations in high school don’t really focus on the need for HBCUs for Black students because a lot of our educators went to PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions),” Swift said. “We have a lot of white educators in public education, so they aren’t really aware of HBCUs or their significance.”
Trinity Robinson, a freshman studying finance and business analytics, comes from a family who all went to HBCUs. Despite the familial tradition of doing so, she decided to go to OU instead, as financial and locational burdens arose.
“Originally, I wanted to go to an HBCU but honestly, it really came down to the money,” Robinson said. “But also the distance as well. I don’t have a problem going out of Ohio, but the HBCUs within Ohio were just not really given a good rap word-of-mouth wise as far as reputation or even experience you were going to get there.”
Lauren Brown, a junior studying chemistry pre-pharmacy, said the difficulty attending HBCUs extends beyond the lack of options in strictly Ohio, but also the inaccessibility of them in the rest of the country.
“It’s extremely hard not having a lot of HBCUs in general mainly because the really good ones are extremely hard to get into and then the others are extremely underfunded,” Brown said. “So I feel like if there were more, you know, options, not even just in Ohio, but like in the United States … is generally better for not only your education but your personality as well.”
PWIs like OU often attempt to address issues of diversity and inclusion through the creation of various organizations on campus that specifically address the experiences and issues of minority students.
Robinson said it is imperative that universities like OU make a greater effort to include these multicultural organizations to properly represent their students and demonstrate their respect and understanding for students and faculty of color.
“When I first got on this campus, it was obviously already present that there was a cultural disconnect, as far as respect, or even just seeing representation on campus period,” Robinson said. “I feel like if you don’t respect and acknowledge and appreciate the different races that you have attending this university, your division is faulty.”
This disconnect, Robinson said, is a crucial point that the university must attempt to fix in order to continue to have minority students that desire to apply.
“If something doesn’t change soon, as far as how minority populations are accepted on this campus, then they’ll definitely see a decrease in the amount of students that enroll here,” Robinson said.
For Black students who currently attend OU, who perhaps desired the benefits of an HBCU, Brown said there is truly no way for a PWI like OU to properly harness the qualities that an HBCU possesses.
“It’s very different to accommodate people who would want to go to HBCU, when you’re going into a PWI,” Brown said. “It is extremely hard to get into college, period, as a person of color. (At a) PWI, you deal with a lot of discrimination. It’s hard not to be able to learn from people who don’t necessarily look like you.”
For Robinson, she has turned to alumni for guidance on how to conduct change within the OU community. Through making these connections, she said it has helped her to be more optimistic about the future.
“When I think of the future, I like to think of (being) the change as far as introducing the school to different possibilities of respecting different people,” Robinson said.”I definitely think the people that you interact with, the ones who are positive and open to change, definitely make the difference.”
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