To commemorate Black History Month, Education Post is featuring stories from parents, students and educators that connect past to present in the continued fight for better schools for Black communities using #MyBlackHistory.
People have different reasons for why they choose to attend a historically Black college. For some, it’s about legacy—a grandparent, auntie, sister or father attended an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and at birth it was mandated that they continue the tradition; a topic not even up for discussion. They roomed in the same dorms, pledged the same fraternities, and were even taught by some of the same professors as their older relatives. For others, it's about geographic location or financial aid or the marching band or a dozen of other reasons. But for me, it was about finding a sense of belonging.
I grew up in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. My K-12 experience was one of misunderstanding and isolation within the classroom. The high school I graduated from currently has a student body where the
population of Black students is 6 percent, which isn’t very different from when I attended. I don’t want to be misleading here. I gained a lot academically from my high school but what I didn’t learn was about was the value of my Blackness. I never had a Black male (or female) educator in front of me until freshman year of college. There were no mirrors; no adults that could stand as reflections of myself. In most of my classes, I was one of two or three Black students in the room. I balanced my time between overcompensating to prove that my Blackness didn’t mean I was inferior, or staying quiet enough to not play into the misconceived assumptions other classmates had about me. It was exhausting and stifling. Senior year, when it came to apply for colleges, many of my classmates were applying to multiple schools. Instead, I did a google search: “What is the Blackest college in America?” I just wanted to have an affinity with my peers. I needed to walk through campus with my fist up, with my
durag hanging out my pocket, smelling like a fresh dollop of
sportin’ waves and not be subconscious about people giving me the side-eye. I was looking for kinship. The school that popped up, and the only school I applied to was the place I would call home for the next four years:
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. North Carolina A&T provided more than simply belonging. It gave me understanding and polish and access. It armed me with tools and passion that I bring to my work as an educator each day, hoping that I can serve as the reflection I never witnessed.
HBCUs Are Essential to Black History
Historically Black Colleges and Universities are essential to the Black experience in this country.
They represent our history of resilience. Our thirst for knowledge. Our ability to create brilliance, despite intentional acts to restrict Black minds. Higher education for African-Americans was practically non-existent before the creation of HBCUs, and many Blacks received informal educations through coalitions in churches and homes. Former slaves were ravenous for an education, having been aggressively denied the ability to read and write. Many southern states rejected the opportunity to integrate their public learning institutions, which led to Black public institutions being birthed. In the early 1900s, Black colleges were able to thrive by having the most talented Black minds teach and develop students to become some of the nation’s best educators, lawyers, scientists, doctors and engineers. HBCUs are just as essential today as they were then. They represent opportunity and resistance, and the importance of their existence is immeasurable.
Shamar Knight-Justice is an assistant dean at KIPP WAYS Primary. He spends his days teaching Black and Brown kids how to take over the world, trying not to get yelled at by his wife for leaving twice-worn socks on the living room floor, and jogging slowly through Atlanta (pronounced A-lan-nuuh), Georgia.
He blogs at EdLANTA.