Betsy DeVos said that historically black colleges and universities are “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” “They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and great quality,” DeVos wrote in a statement shoehorning in her ideology and agenda to starve public education through state-funded vouchers. “Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
My mother, Sandra Brown, was her class Salutatorian in her segregated high school in Hampton, Virginia. She was a straight A student; hospital volunteer; sang in her church choir; and a gifted pianist. Somehow, when even the best White schools weren’t teaching American students to learn a foreign language, she, a little brown girl being raised at that point by a single mother started teaching herself to speak French. She became so fluent that she was later sent to study in France.
BUT, she DID NOT have the CHOICE to apply to or to attend any college she wanted. The only choice that this gifted, hard-working 17-year-old had upon graduation was to attend a Historically Black College or University—not because she wasn’t good enough or hadn’t worked hard enough; but because Jim Crow laws forbade her, blocked her from attending most universities.
But, she, like hundreds of thousands of Black men and women refused to be blocked from the opportunity to achieve; so she made a way. That’s what most Black women and men have always had to do to get a quality education: find a way, pave a way, build a way. Case in point, in 1861, around the beginning of the Civil War, Major General Benjamin Butler declared that any escaping slaves reaching Union lines would be considered “contraband of war” and would not be returned to slavery. Accordingly, droves of Black slaves fled to the Hampton area, desperate for freedom. Mary Peake, a free woman, began teaching some of these Black Americans though it was illegal in Virginia to even educate Black people—free or enslaved. Fewer than 100 years later, my mother found her way down the path paved by those first 20 escaped Black people who were educated by Mary Peake under an Oak Tree in Hampton, Virginia —determined to free themselves from dire circumstances.
When it was time for me to go to college, I did have a choice. I could have attended several Predominately White Institution (PWI) if I wanted. I didn’t. I didn’t apply to even one. I applied to and attended Tuskegee University, founded by Booker T. Washington, one of Hampton’s preeminent graduates. I only considered a Historically Black College or University because after seeing how successful, happy, and accomplished my family members — graduates of Hampton, Morehouse, Prairie View A&M and Howard – were, I knew that was the only choice for me. After growing up for years on Hampton University’s campus as my mother returned there to be a French professor, and witnessing droves of 17 and 18 year olds arriving and blossoming, thriving, learning as they were nurtured by professors who looked at them and only saw great possibilities, and who ensured that they were connected to their great past of overcoming.
Yes, Historically Black Universities and Colleges are now a choice for Black Students (all students, actually . . . our schools have ALWAYS been open to all students). Black students seeking higher education have the option, the choice to attend many other colleges and universities than they did a just 50 years ago. But please, PLEASE do not rewrite our history to satisfy your agenda. Do not rewrite history to serve a political purpose, to bolster your ideology; to paint a prettier picture.
We, Black people, got to where we are because we fought to get here. We paved a way, built a way despite people like you trying to get in our way.