Ronald McNair didn’t find himself aboard the Challenger by happenstance. He had already ventured beyond the reach of Earth’s gravity before—on the same shuttle even—becoming the second African American to travel to space, after decades of intention.
As a high school valedictorian, renowned laser scientist, and taekwondo blackbelt, he was poised to change the world in any number of ways.
After his first successful spaceflight, McNair received an offer to teach and conduct research at the University of South Carolina, which is why he found himself meeting with the dean of Black politics in the state, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), who now serves as the House majority whip.
“Ron told me on that occasion that people always introduced him as this successful astronaut, Black astronaut with a Ph.D. from MIT,” Clyburn recalled recently. “What he said to me, that his success was because of those four years he spent at North Carolina A&T.”
In some tellings, McNair’s time at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University is relegated to a footnote in a story about the heights of American achievement: MIT, Hughes Lab, NASA. But in reality McNair’s time at North Carolina A&T wasn’t incidental—it was the experience that provided the foundation for his success.
North Carolina A&T is America’s largest HBCU and nationally recognized for its STEM education programs, which graduate the most Black students with bachelor’s degrees in engineering and agriculture.
In the end what prevented McNair from fulfilling his boundless promise wasn’t his HBCU pedigree but an accident of fate. His second flight launched on January 28,1986, and he was killed when the Challenger exploded and disintegrated above the Atlantic Ocean just over a minute after liftoff.
Clyburn would later tell the story of his last conversation with McNair to an audience that included James Clark, the current president of South Carolina State University.
“I went to MIT,” Clyburn recalls Clark saying. “[McNair] was in my class, he was the best prepared student there.”
What A Day
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) have shaped U.S. history in underappreciated ways since they were born out of the darkness of slavery. Mass culture tends to portray them as second-class institutions, when it remembers they exist at all. But these institutions are as American as the cruelty and greed that birthed them. And now, for the first time since the first HBCU opened its doors 184 years ago, a group of HBCU grads has attained prominence at the height American politics, marking a profound shift in the types of Black leaders who get to make decisions about America’s future.
Black political figures have generally had to demonstrate some level of palatability to white Americans to gain a foothold in national politics. This has typically meant attending Ivy League schools or other selective universities, avoiding tough conversations about race, and immersing themselves in white-dominated spaces. Barack Obama epitomized this tendency, which may explain why he lost his first major political race in 2000 to Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) in a majority-Black district but went on to become a transformative figure nationwide.
But as the political class has become more diverse, the archetypes of Black political leaders have broadened with it. Two decades ago, conventional wisdom couldn’t imagine a Black president; one decade ago, it shifted to assuming Black leaders with national political ambitions had to have pedigrees and temperaments like Obama’s. Today, the vice president of the United States is a Howard University graduate, and the first Black Democratic senator from the South is a Morehouse alum. Their successes have created pathways to national leadership for hundreds of thousands of current and future HBCU alums, many of whom may until recently have inferred that those kinds of roles were foreclosed to them.
HBCU grads have become political leaders in the past, of course, but what’s happening in politics today can make that trajectory normal, rather than extraordinary.
Before the Civil War, African Americans were largely prohibited from receiving traditional education. Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC), who founded the Congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus and attended North Carolina A&T University, said these institutions were born of that deprivation. “Black people were looking at edcuation as the pathway to lift themselves up from slavery,” she said.
Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), who attended Harris-Stowe State University, echoed Adams, noting, “The history of this nation is one rooted in the exclusion and segregation of Black people. HBCUs came about to provide a pathway to higher education for the Black community.”
The first HBCU, Cheyney University (then the African Institute), was founded in 1837 in Cheyney, PA. Over the next 20 years, three more HBCUs were founded to provide primary and secondary education and technical training to African Americans. But their ranks didn’t really swell until after the Civil War, and it wasn’t until the early 1900s that these institutions began offering college-level instruction. There are now more than 100 HBCUs throughout the country.
HBCUs remained an important bulwark for African American students even after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawed public-school segregation, in no small part because white people resisted integration aggressively. Decades later, norms and laws governing admissions have changed, but racism and resistance to integration still exist within predominantly white institutions, which is partly why Bush enrolled at Harris-Stowe.
After attending a mostly Black middle school, Bush went to a predominantly white high school, but ultimately had to transfer to a more welcoming institution. “It was something that I had never experienced before, I felt so much hatred and separation at that school, treated differently because I was Black,” she remembered. Bush believes she was targeted because she was Black and had the highest GPA in her class.
Nearly 70 years after the Brown decision, HBCUs remain an integral part of the Black community and American education system, but only now are they beginning to get the broad recognition they deserve.
Undoubtedly, Kamala Harris has accelerated interest in HBCUs, but even before she became vice president, the mainstream of American culture began to take notice of them.
Two years ago Beyonce exposed millions to HBCUs when she produced Homecoming, a concert performance and film that paid homage to HBCUs and their homecoming celebrations, which can draw crowds of more than 100,000 people. Last year, top college basketball prospect Mikey Williams surprised the college sports world when he announced he might attend an HBCU, though he has yet to commit to any of his options.
These cultural moments have helped educate more people about HBCUs, an effort Adams began five years ago. In 2016 she founded the Congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus. “I knew that so many people did not know as much about HBCUs as I knew, nor had they ever heard about HBCUs,” she said. “They didn’t have them in their communities, some of them, so we wanted to create this national dialog to really escalate the discussion about our institutions.”
The caucus also aims to educate members and staff, including about basic history that most non-HBCU grads probably don’t know.
Seminal figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and activist Marian Wright Edelman, who founded the Children’s Defense Fund, all attended HBCUs. But our shared consciousness of these icons tends to accept their accomplishments as the work of legends, as if they entered their worlds fully formed, rather than as outgrowths of their experiences, including their educational backgrounds.
The Civil Rights Movement, if not King himself, couldn’t have changed the world without the HBCUs it drew upon.
In February of 1960, four students from North Carolina A&T protested segregation by staging a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro. Their efforts spread to other college towns throughout the South, resulting in the desegregation of many local businesses.
The sit-ins inspired Ella Baker, a Shaw University alumna, to host a conference at her alma mater to organize students within the Civil Rights Movement. The conference resulted in the creation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which organized voter registration drives and the Freedom Rides in the Deep South.
These efforts continued after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as a counterweight to Southern whites remained committed to upholding segregation. In 1968 in Orangeburg, SC, home to two HBCUs, South Carolina State University and Claflin University, students protested segregation by violating a local bowling alley’s whites-only policy.
On the fourth night of protests, law enforcement met the students with deadly force, killing three and shooting and injuring 28 people. This violent incident is known as the Orangeburg Massacre. No law enforcement officers were held accountable.
The HBCU system has helped foster equality through political channels as well, by serving as a feeder to Congress—particularly the House of Representatives. Roughly 20 Members of Congress attended HBCUs, including Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), who was recently elected as Georgia’s first Black Senator. Some of them credit their HBCU experience with their decision to enter public service.
Clyburn attributes his political career to the people he met at South Carolina State, including his late wife of 58 years, whom he met in jail after being arrested for protesting segregation. “I met my soulmate there,” he said. “I had my first conversation with her after having just met her and it was that conversation that formed the basis upon which I still provide public service today.”
Adams shared a similar sentiment about the impact of her HBCU experience. She said, “The support and the education that I received at North Carolina A&T has helped shape my beliefs today.” It was an education she wasn’t prepared to obtain. She admits that when she arrived at NC A&T she was not academically prepared, but that school officials told her, “Listen, we’ve made this investment in you, we believe in you, we’re going to take you where we found you and we’re going to move you to where we know you can be.”
Unlike PWIs, HBCUs don’t cherry pick students to inflate their college rankings or endowments. Instead they harness their students’ potential to prepare them to excel after graduation, which reflects a radically different philosophy.
Schools like Harvard thrive on myth, reputation, and elite networking alone. HBCUs have to give their students tools they need to thrive without guaranteed access to the national elite. It’s why, with significantly fewer resources, they were able to take someone like Adams and prepare her to earn three degrees, a Kellog fellowship, a college professorship, and lifelong career in public service.
HBCUs represent just three percent of American colleges and universities, but enroll 10 percent of African American students and graduate them at a higher rate than other institutions. They also generate more Black professionals than majority-white institutions. We should attribute this success to the approach HBCUs take with their students. Adams, Clyburn, and Bush all said that these institutions celebrated who they were, instilled them with pride in their blackness, and invested in their potential in ways predominantly white institutions, where Black students often face severe discrimination, could not have.
Despite the demonstrable, positive impact they have on students, the Black community, and the entire country, HBCUs remain under constant attack.
In 2009 the Obama Administration did not renew a Bush-era $85 million earmark for HBCUs, opting to put more money in a general higher-education fund. This move disproportionately benefited non-HBCU institutions. Two years later they tightened credit requirements for Parent Plus loans, which made it harder for parents to secure them. The change cost HBCUs $150 million and denied aid to thousands of students who were then unable to return to school. In response to the backlash, Obama’s administration recognized its error and revised the requirements.
Other times, lawmakers seek to harm HBCUs intentionally. Legislators in South Carolina refuse to adequately fund the state’s only public HBCU. Similar subversive efforts play out across the country, and are most visible in the funding disparities that exist between mostly white and HBCU public land-grant universities.
At a cultural level, the attacks take the form of stigma—of teachers and advisers telling high-achieving Black students that they are too smart to attend HBCUs.
Clyburn says he was one of those students encouraged to attend a non-HBCU. His mother, who didn’t finish high school, believed he needed to get out of the South for college, but he had different plans. South Carolina State was the only place he wanted to go and the only school he applied to. “This old notion that you got to go and rub shoulders with the folks at majority institutions in order to learn, I don’t think so,” he said. “I do pretty good and I didn’t attend any of those.”
The fact that the HBCU contingent in Congress is so large and growing, in the era of the Harris vice presidency, points to a radical notion: That Clyburn’s path—and Adams’ and Harris’ and Bush’s and Warnock’s—can become something like the norm for aspiring Black leaders, rather than a departure from a path through the Ivy League. “As the nation has gotten progressively more diverse and as Congress is getting more diverse,” Adams said, “I think it’s impossible now to hide the impact of HBCUs on our society.”
She believes this extra attention and representation will feed positively into greater policy and cultural support, and a larger applicant pool, for HBCUs, observing that people seem surprised Harris did not attend Harvard or Yale. “Well, she didn’t have to, she went to a greater place, she went to an HBCU.”