Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog truly blessed the world with a few simple yet powerfully provocative lines in the song “God Bless The Child”
Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
The words read differently than they sound but the meaning is clear. Don’t be a victim, stand up and do for yourself.
I think about these words more and more as I reflect on the state of higher education. You may have read my previous post where I shared a few thoughts on the role of Affirmative Action in higher education but if not, you may want to read that before you dive into this conversation for a little more context.
It may also help you to know that I am a proud graduate of an Historically Black College (Tougaloo College Class of 2002) and in the fine tradition of my alma mater I feel compelled to provide a little history lesson for those of us who are facing the troublesome headlines of 2017 and their direct relationship to the Black American experience. So sit back and relax because this is gonna take a minute but I promise that you’ll leave better than you came. (Seriously, there’s a big prize at the end, don’t peek!)
A lot of people think of Howard University (1867) and Hampton University (1868) as the elder statesmen of HBCUs, but you can’t argue with the facts. Both of those institutions came along after the work of their predecessors.
Lincoln University of Pennsylvania (1854) followed Cheyney and Wilberforce University (1856) came on the scene in Ohio shortly afterwards. In Missouri, Harris-Stowe State University (1857) was the last HBCU founded prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, but LeMoyne-Owen College (1862) was established in Memphis, Tennessee DURING the war and was the first HBCU south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Think about that for a minute. The state of Tennessee while the last to secede from the Union did so on June 8, 1861. Can you imagine the bravery it took for those folks to open a college for the education of negros during that time? (I wonder if Ava DuVernay or Oprah would entertain a screenplay from me about the events surrounding LeMoyne-Owen’s founding 🤔.)
My own beloved alma mater, Tougaloo College (1869), was founded shortly after the war just 199 miles south in Mississippi. I’m taking the time to set the atmosphere for you so that you can understand that education has been a serious thing for African Americans for a significant portion of this country’s existence.
In fact, before the end of the Civil War, approximately 40 blacks had graduated from colleges and universities, all of which were in the North. Included in this number was the first black female medical student, Rebecca Lee Crumpler, who graduated from the New England Female Medical College and Alexander Lucius Twilight who is credited as the first known African American to graduate from a college in the United States. He received a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College in Vermont in 1823. Additionally, Edward A. Bouchet, a black man, received a Ph.D. in Physics in 1876 from Yale University, becoming the first African American to earn a doctorate degree from an American university.
But people think black students cannot comprehend science and math.
Fact: The oldest evidence of Mathematics and Physics has been traced to Egypt and what is now modern day Iraq, thousands of years before the appearance of the Greek scholars you have learned about in your history books. Think about it.
Fact: Today there are about 107 HBCUs in the United States. There are approximately 5,300 colleges in the United States. 
Fact: HBCUs have never had a policy of discriminating on the basis of race or ethnicity in their college admissions. Just felt the need to point that out.
So in the face of all that we are witnessing with the U.S Department of Education and the Trump Administration’s recent interest in trying to eliminate Affirmative Action programs what does this mean for African Americans?
- We need to remember who we are and what we come from black people. This is not a time for us to wring our hands and run and hide. We are the descendents of some of the strongest people ever to walk the earth. Our people eat sorrow and expel the fertilizer that produced George Washington Carver, Madame CJ Walker, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Mae Jemison, Colin Powell, Michelle Obama and so many more.
- We need to remember who we are and protect OUR institutions black people. It is OUR responsibility to ensure the educational opportunities for our children. If the traditionally white institutions of these United States of America attempt to bar us from having equal access of course we will fight that injustice, but don’t forget our HBCUs in the process because if recent events have taught us anything it’s that we need to make sure we have the means to provide for our own well being.
- We need to take action and support our HBCUs (both in recruiting students and through philanthropy a.k.a. cash money, planned gifts, endowments, etc.). I will never regret my decision to attend Tougaloo College. I am proud that my grandparents attended Savannah State University, Fort Valley State University and Morehouse College. (Yes, I said grandparents. My sharecropping grandfather who was born in the 1920’s held his very own earned graduate degree.) I am proud that my brother is a graduate of Southern University in Baton Rouge. I am proud to be married to a Tougalooan. I believe in the mission of HBCUs and I know that they still play a vital role in American education. Perhaps it’s time to look to our HBCUs as top choices rather than “fall back options” when it comes to graduate education.
We have a proud legacy to embrace and share with our children and our children’s children.
We also have something that we didn’t have back in the day. We have an abundance of terminal graduate degree programs at HBCUs. The number and variety may astonish you because they are not often grouped and celebrated together. I decided to end this reflection with a challenge to everyone who reads this post to share this information with young people who may not be aware of the many choices they have for graduate education at HBCUs today. I have compiled a list of HBCUs with doctoral programs (PhDs, JDs, MDs) so that we can help ourselves. Remember those words…
“Mama may have, Papa may have but God bless the child who’s got his/her own.”
Marta C. Youngblood is a writer, education and social entrepreneur based in Lubbock, Texas. For more information on her current projects visit https://about.me/MCyoungblood.