Opinion: HBCU ideals could be key to helping our democracy, our planet

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

John S. Wilson Jr. is the executive director of the Millennium Leadership Initiative (MLI), which aims to enhance the preparedness of traditionally underrepresented leaders in the highest ranks of higher education. The MLI is part of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

In this guest column, Wilson, a former president of Morehouse College and former executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, advocates for greater support for the nation’s HBCUs. He argues the schools should be embraced as a leading resource in addressing the challenges facing the nation and world.

Wilson has a new book coming out Tuesday, “Hope and Healing: Black Colleges and the Future of American Democracy,” that discusses the historic role of HBCUs in America and the lessons that higher education can learn from their struggles and successes.

By John S. Wilson Jr.

America faces a signal-to-noise ratio crisis. The noise of our tribal discord is louder than the signal of our patriotic harmony. In order to shape far better citizens, we must now repeat a victory in education and avoid a repeat tragedy in baseball.

By authoring the nation’s only broad, education-based effort to aggressively actualize democracy, America’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) gave us a victory worth repeating. Their unprecedented work eventually yielded a transformational civil rights movement, the collective fruits of which proved that college communities can literally spur a more perfect union. That work remains virtuous.

But it matters that American democracy is now chilling apace with the Earth’s warming. Fortunately, the scaled effort required to repeat the HBCU victory resembles the one required to salvage a livable planet. And that matters, too, since a broken democracy cannot heal a broken planet.



Many Americans may find it counterintuitive to embrace HBCUs as primary models and drivers of national or global solutions. The standard narrative spin may be the problem. Even their proudest advocates routinely wrap HBCU virtues and values around their past glory, ranging from a gritty basic literacy miracle to a lofty civic literacy miracle. Each institutional “strive and survive” saga typically cites precarity as both the weather and the forecast. All true.

But what if we begin appreciating HBCU stories less for their power to inspire, than for their tools to transform? Could the HBCU-driven movement that peaked in the 1960s provide meaningful lessons for how we can save our democracy and planet now?

Yes. But it won’t be easy.

On many of today’s campuses, vocational prerogatives increasingly drive academic budgets. Research and curricular agendas often dance to the tune of industry deejays. Many presidents feel forced to privilege how over why, and skill set over mindset. The prosperity chase rules.

Yet, a pivot remains possible if all campuses learn from an HBCU tradition wherein the passion to enhance the democracy dwarfed the drive to enter the aristocracy. Their stories reveal that higher-character, democracy-fluent citizens developed in campus cocoons warmed by the light of servant-leadership imperatives.

HBCUs originated a consequential model. They should logically benefit from the expanded public and private investments required to empower a new democracy-centric movement.

But that signals the possibility of a repeat tragedy. For America’s sake, the institutions best suited to ascend as investment-worthy models must avoid the tragic fate of Negro League Baseball teams. Just as HBCUs were never merely a Black version of white higher education, the Negro Leagues featured a different game. According to many accounts, Negro League games showcased more speed, skill, power and charisma. And because of their sharper play, they typically prevailed in their popular exhibition games against the all-white Major League Baseball teams. When MLB leaders finally decided to integrate, they cagily purchased the Negro Leagues’ individual talent, thereby snubbing its better game. Thus, instead of the Negro Leagues elevating nationally or internationally on the wings of its true value proposition — its unique play — it faded and died in 1960.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Likewise, when most white colleges began aggressively integrating in the 1970s, they stormed the HBCU ecosystem, methodically buying the best individual students, faculty and athletes. But they snubbed the “HBCU game” embedded in the student-centric pedagogy and mission-driven culture. Beyond the standard curriculum, key HBCU leaders cultivated a “hidden curriculum,” which complemented and uniquely drove the campus mood and culture. As these activist campus cultures gained texture and visibility, several HBCUs explicitly and unapologetically incubated staunch warriors for the common good.

Tragically, like the Negro Leagues, HBCUs have yet to elevate on the wings of their true value proposition — their democracy-enhancing achievement. That work remains unheralded, unrewarded and unrepeated. And the persistent devaluation of it has stymied both the full optimization of HBCUs, and the full democratization of America.

While this kind of history may reside in books destined to be banned, it is irrefutable. By giving vigorous, contemporary expression to the best of the HBCU tradition, all of today’s campus leaders can now nurture the new, more humane citizens required to sustainably detoxify our social and physical climates.

The proven, signal-enhancing HBCU concept of shaping better citizens is both timely and timeless.