Like eight other colleges in Texas founded principally to serve the African-American community, Houston-based Texas Southern University is turning out a solid pool of graduates today headed for careers as educators, entrepreneurs, public servants, lawyers, pilots, artists and a variety of professions.
But the success of these colleges — known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) – didn’t happen overnight or without a struggle.
Prior to the Civil War, public policy prohibited the education of African Americans in parts of the nation. Many colleges and universities refused to admit black students. It was not until 1872 that the first HBCU in Texas — Paul Quinn College, located in Dallas — opened its doors to students. A year later, Wiley College, site of the Hollywood film The Great Debaters, opened in Marshall.
February is Black History Month, an opportunity to reflect on the triumphs of African-Americans and their many contributions to our society. These accomplishments would not have been possible to a large extent without the educational foundation provided by HBCUs.
Charlene James, volunteer president of AARP Texas, attended Fisk University, a historically black university founded in 1866 in Nashville. Today, she proudly identifies herself as a “third-generation Fisk graduate.”
James says that HBCUs “provided a holistic approach to education for their students” so that they would “achieve academic excellence and be servant leaders in their respective areas of professional pursuits and community involvement.”
HBCUs in Texas have had a powerful impact in the lives of many generations of students. Some of the schools are even reaching students later in their lives. Lena Bean, program director for the Aging and Intergenerational Resources at Texas Southern University, focuses her work on educational and training programs geared primarily for older adults age 60 and older. The department is positioned as a training ground for students aspiring to pursue any career aiming to improve the quality of life for older adults through comprehensive education and training.
For many older African-Americans, “coming onto a college campus is an experience that they have always wanted to do but never had maybe the time, or never thought that they could do it.”
Bean, a Texas Southern University alumna herself, knows how important celebrating African American history is at an HBCU. She said her heritage was “the one thing that was taken away from us during slavery. We never knew where we belonged.”
However, as a student, Bean felt at home. “I wasn’t afraid of spreading my wings. I wasn’t afraid of wearing an afro. I wasn’t afraid of being black.”