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U.S. EDUCATION > The U.S. Education System > Diversity in Education > 50 Years After Brown: Why Historically Black Colleges and Universities Remain Relevant

50 Years After Brown: Why Historically Black Colleges and Universities Remain Relevant

Beverly Daniel Tatum

Beverly Daniel Tatum writes about the role of historically Black colleges in affirming the identity of African-American students, while at the same time giving them the opportunity to meet students with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. She is the president of Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, and the author of "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and Other Conversations about Race (Basic Books, 2003).

I was born in 1954, just four months after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawed the "separate but equal" doctrine of school segregation. I entered the world in Tallahassee, Florida, where my father taught in the art department at Florida A&M University. He wanted to attend Florida State University to earn a doctorate, but in 1954 the state of Florida still denied access to black graduate students. Instead they paid his train fare to Pennsylvania, and in 1957 he completed his degree at Penn State University. A year later he became the first Black professor at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, the community where I grew up. Today Bridgewater State College has its first president of color, and in February 2004, I, a black woman, delivered the opening speech at a higher education conference hosted at Florida State. Neither event was imaginable in 1954.

As an educator with many years of experience teaching about racism in predominantly white institutions and now as the ninth president of Spelman College, the oldest historically Black college for women, I have a new lens through which to understand the meaning of Brown v. Board of Education. Like many HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), Spelman faced new competition for its students from those predominantly white colleges and universities that had previously excluded them. But increased competition spurred important improvements at Spelman. During the post-Brown era, professors were actively encouraged to increase their research and publication efforts, and new resources for scholarships were created. Successful fundraising efforts to increase the endowment provided financial stability and fueled construction of new residence halls and academic buildings—creating an environment that now attracts approximately 4,000 talented young women annually to compete for 525 spaces in our first-year class.

Why are historically Black colleges like Spelman not only still relevant but the preferred choice for many talented Black students? College choice is a reflection of identity—a statement about how you see yourself, who you are now, and who you hope to become. Students are drawn to environments where they see themselves reflected in powerful ways, places where they see themselves as central to the educational enterprise.

Several years ago, as part of my research of racial identity development among Black college students raised in predominantly white communities, I interviewed students who had chosen to go to a historically Black university. One young woman commented on her Black college experience, saying, "You know, it really makes me happy when I walk across the campus to know 'This place was built for me.'" There are not many places in America where a Black woman can say that. The importance of affirmation of identity in college choice cannot be underestimated.

Though most college campuses are considerably more diverse today than they were in 1954, institutions are still struggling to understand the ABCs of creating truly inclusive environments that will maximize the intellectual and leadership potential of all of their students. Those ABCs are affirming identity, building community, and cultivating leadership, three critical dimensions of effective learning environments through all levels of education.

Translating the ABCs into action requires us to routinely ask each other important questions: Who is reflected in our environment? Who is missing from the picture? What opportunities exist for building community, for encouraging dialogue across difference? How are students involved so that they are honing leadership skills in a diverse context?

As a race relations expert, I am often asked why I would choose to lead an institution as "homogeneous" as Spelman College. Of course, the question is based on a flawed assumption. Though 97 percent of our students are racially categorized as "Black," the student body is quite diverse. Spelman students come from all regions of the United States and many foreign countries, from white suburban and rural communities as well as urban Black ones. All parts of the African Diaspora are represented, and the variety of experience and perspectives among the women who attend the college creates many opportunities for dialogue. There is a developmental moment in the lives of young people of color when "within group" dialogue can be as important, or perhaps even sometimes more important, than "between group" dialogue. And, even in the context of an HBCU, it is possible to create opportunities for both.

Many of us have a vision of colleges where all students have the opportunity and the encouragement to achieve at a high standard. It is a vision of multiethnic communities characterized by equitable and just group relations. It is a vision of education that should not only foster intellectual development by providing students the tools of critical thinking, speaking, writing, and quantitative reasoning, but should also provide all students the skills and experiences necessary for effective participation in a diverse society. Such an ideal educational environment has never existed on a broad scale in American society—or to my knowledge, anywhere else. But the vision is a blueprint.






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