A campaign to sustain historically black colleges

Valencia Bean (pictured second from left) and fellow members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority show off their HBCU alumni paraphernalia. CONTRIBUTED

Valencia Bean (pictured second from left) and fellow members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority show off their HBCU alumni paraphernalia. CONTRIBUTED

Our nation’s historically black colleges and universities have been getting a lot of bad press of late.

They lack quality education and degree offerings. They can’t meet accreditation requirements. Enrollment is down.

Valencia Bean has heard it all.

But here’s a fact that, in her mind, can’t be repeated often enough and should never be forgotten: Not only were HBCUs the first to give African Americans the opportunity to obtain higher education when virtually no other colleges would, they remain vitally important in the black community, especially when it comes to closing wealth and achievement gaps.

That means everything to Bean, and it ought to mean something to the rest of us.

A lot of people give lip service to the importance of education. Bean and the other members of the Pearls of Purpose Foundation Inc., the philanthropic arm of the Nu Lambda Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., have for 32 years given scholarships so deserving Atlanta and Fulton County school students can attend college.

Just a week ago, the foundation handed out $31,000 in scholarships at its annual Pink Pearl Mother-Daughter Luncheon, and through its signature College Admissions Program — #CAP — it is helping students with entrance exams and application fees.

There’s more but recently the chapter has been laser focused on the sorority’s HBCU for Life campaign.

The campaign, the brainchild of Glenda Glover, international president of AKA and president of Tennessee State University, raised $1.2 million recently to help sustain HBCUs into the future.

Dubbed the “HBCU Community Impact Day,” Glover challenged AKA members, many of whom attended an HBCU, to donate $35 each to the effort.

“In one day, she helped us realize what our collective strength can do to endow our HBCUs,” Bean said.

They are not done.

RELATED: Perilous times for black colleges

After another call to action on the regional level that raised more than $100,000, the sorority will host another Community Impact Day in September that promises to be just as successful.

I’m pulling for them.

Unlike the friends I grew up with who mostly attended Jackson State or Alcorn State University, I didn’t attend an HBCU.

I went to junior college, then headed to the University of Southern Mississippi, but I understand why so many African Americans prefer an HBCU over a predominantly white institution.

They find more support there. They get more personal attention. And, more often than not, it’s a family tradition.

After graduating from Frederick Douglass High School in 1981, Bean said she enrolled at Morris Brown College because many of her family members had gone there.

“I was never told I had to go, but I knew it was a quiet expectation,” she said.

Valencia Bean is president of the Pearls of Purpose Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Nu Lambda Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., and a graduate of Morris Brown College. CONTRIBUTED

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But lots of other things made Morris Brown attractive, too.

It was considered academically challenging. Its students enjoyed a relationship with all the colleges in the Atlanta University Center that allowed them to matriculate on all four campuses, which by the way, made it feel like one big family. It was home to the beloved Marching Wolverines, a major draw for Bean, a former drum majorette. When the college awarded her a band scholarship to attend, she said, “it was like icing on the cake.”

Even since graduating in 1985 with an accounting degree, she has returned often to the Atlanta campus to bask in the traditions and sense of community.

When she learned Morris Brown’s finances were in disarray and the school had lost its accreditation in 2002, it was as if a family secret had been exposed.

RELATED: Morris Brown College to seek accreditation

Bean believed that the issues would be resolved quickly, but that hasn’t been the case.

Worse, alumni weren’t stepping up to help.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“If we don’t save our colleges, who will?” she asked.

Too many African Americans, she believes, have forgotten the role HBCUs played in shaping black leaders and fueling social movements.

That’s what makes her proud of the AKA sorority, by the way.

“We have positioned ourselves to say remember when,” she said. “If it were not for HBCUs, our parents would not have had a safe environment to obtain higher education.”

If you haven’t figured it out yet, this is personal for Bean.

She isn’t just delivering platitudes. She has met with the interim president at her beloved Morris Brown because she wants to do whatever she can to help the college get back in good academic and financial standing. And she wants the rest of us to know that this isn’t just a problem unique to Morris Brown or to African Americans.

“Supporting HBCUs is something that we all could benefit from, and that’s the part that we miss,” Bean said. “These schools are there for people, period. Their doors are opened to anyone who wants to matriculate. Take your kids to visit an HBCU. Try them.”

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