Editor’s Note: Airielle Lowe is a recent graduate of Howard University and an associate producer at CNN. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
As a recent college graduate I – like so many others – am entering the “real world” a bit unsure of myself. Fearful and yet hopeful for the future.
However, as a recent graduate of a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), I recognize I will be leaving behind my safe space of the past four years – and entering spaces where I may be one of the few Black people in a room.
Of course, these are all things my professors at Howard University have spoken openly about and prepared my classmates and me for. They have told us that being the only Black person in a room often means you’ll have to work harder to prove yourself, that it may be more difficult to have your voice heard when pitching a topic or speaking up at all. Some professors also warned us to be hyper-aware of the way we present ourselves – recounting their own experiences coming of age at a time when doing things like wearing your natural hair could easily prevent a recruiter from taking you seriously.
These words of wisdom never served the purpose of discouraging us as Black individuals entering the workforce. Instead, they fueled our desire to continue to work toward altering the perception the workforce has of Black America.
Yet even still, the reality that awaits some of us after we walk across that stage is more jarring than feeling alienated in corporate America.
At the same time, I know – as many of my fellow HBCU students know – that we have also been in the “real world” all along, one in which our schools function as targets, not sanctuaries. On May 4, Sydney Anderson, a Delaware State University (DSU) women’s lacrosse player, wrote an article for her school newspaper, The Hornet, detailing an April 20 incident where her team was stopped on the way home from a game in Florida by deputies of the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia for a traffic violation by the driver of their team bus, who is Black.
Anderson, a rising junior, opened her account of the incident with the following words: “Breathe, but not too heavy. Look, but do not appear guilty. Speak, but never answer back. These are the constant reminders of being Black in America. ”
Officers conducted a search during the stop and body camera footage of the incident released by the sheriff’s office shows a deputy having K-9 sniff the vehicle, while another says, “There’s a bunch of dang schoolgirls on the truck. Probably some weed.” Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman, who is also Black, said “before entering the motorcoach, the deputy was not aware that this school was historically Black or aware of the race of the occupants due to the height of the vehicle and tinted windows.”
The team’s head coach, Pamella Jenkins, told CNN she felt particularly violated for herself and her team because of the deputies’ “accusatory tone” and emphasis on marijuana. One of her players, Saniya Craft, described the experience as “traumatic.”
The school’s president, Tony Allen, has said the university intends to file a formal complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, alleging the team was racially profiled. He released a statement addressing the racial implications of such a search: “It should not be lost on any of us how thin any day’s line is between customary and extraordinary, between humdrum and exceptional, between safe and victimized. That is true for us all but particularly so for communities of color and the institutions who serve them.”
Allen’s words about the line “between safe and victimized” and this particularly being the case for Black communities and HBCUs is not lost on me, nor should it be lost on the average reader. HBCUs and Black individuals in American society have been mistreated and victimized for decades.
That fundamental truth spreads fear wherever it goes – and wherever we go. I know this firsthand. In early February (also celebrated as Black History Month), my alma mater, Howard University, was subjected to a racially motivated incident: The women’s lacrosse team endured racial slurs before a game from students at Presbyterian College, outside the school’s stadium in Clinton, South Carolina. Although Presbyterian was quick to react, releasing a statement condemning those students and announcing they were launching an investigation, the damage had already been done. These Howard players had already been reminded of what it is like to have to step away from a space where their identities – their Blackness – give them reason to be afraid.
That same month, more than a dozen HBCUs received bomb threats. The first time we received one, I remember being slightly anxious, though Howard was quick to issue an “all clear” – signaling that after an investigation, nothing was found.
The bomb threats are a reminder that, though perhaps jarring for us, attacks on HBCUs are nothing new. From the foundation of the first HBCU in the country in 1837 – built to provide Black Americans a basic human right they couldn’t receive anywhere else, education – HBCUs have been the target for racially motivated attacks.
Ohio’s Wilberforce University – the nation’s oldest private HBCU owned and operated by African Americans – was burned to the ground in 1865. LeMoyne-Owen College faced a similar incident in 1866, when it was destroyed in a fire that occurred during a race riot known as the Memphis Massacre, which killed 46 Black people. In 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. was expected to deliver an address at Fisk University in Nashville, though the incident was delayed due to a bomb threat. The list goes on and on.
And yet, many of these historic institutions have still managed to withstand the test of time. Wilberforce and LeMoyne-Owen rebuilt themselves from the ground up. Fisk University still stands tall today and was one of the schools that also received a bomb threat in February.
While the threats to these historic institutions remained over decades, so did their purpose. HBCUs held an imperative role in the civil rights movement, producing figures that would lead pivotal movements in the fight toward racial justice. Perhaps one of the most notable is the Greensboro Four: four students from the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCAT) who staged a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
And when they’re not fighting for justice and their students aren’t marching in the streets, HBCUs have always been, as Vice President (and HBCU alumna) Kamala Harris put it, “a cathedral of education.”
Although HBCUs account for reportedly 3% of all of America’s universities and colleges, they enroll 10% of all Black students, produce 20% of all Black graduates and 25% of Black STEM graduates. A 2015 Gallup study even found that HBCU gradates had a more positive relationship with their university and professors than those who didn’t attend one, with 58% of those graduates strongly agreeing that their professors care about them as people, versus 25% of non-HBCU graduates feeling the same way.
And yet despite this, HBCUs have generally remained underfunded. The American Council on Education found that between 2003 and 2015, these institutions experienced “the steepest decline in federal funding per full-time equivalent student.” This is especially detrimental since public HBCUs rely more heavily on federal, state and local funding than non-HBCUs. Although the Biden administration recently announced $2.7 billion in funding for these institutions, is it imperative that our government does not drop the ball here – HBCUs still have a long way to go in catching up to predominantly White institutions (PWIs).
I can say with certainty that my own experience at an HBCU has had its fair share of ups and downs – perhaps like at any other university. However, I wouldn’t trade the experience I’ve had at Howard for anything. Many of my peers came from predominantly White high schools and/or communities – which many said contributed to their decision to attend an HBCU. They described similar feelings of alienation (intentional or not) because of their race, their hair, their history – and feeling that alienation dissipate after joining a community where for the first time, they were no longer the minority. They could receive an education without fear of being harassed by their roommate or learn more about a history they were never taught.
At Howard, I learned much more about Black history than I ever learned at my high school, an experience that, unfortunately, many of my classmates relate to. I felt comfortable walking around the dorms in my bonnet and happy to see other women wearing their natural hair or helping each other install wigs in their rooms. I felt a sense of camaraderie, but more than anything, walking across that campus, I felt home.
With graduation season ending, I look back upon my undergraduate years with fond memories, despite a global pandemic and other hardships I endured along the way. However, I will admit that I look back upon those years especially grateful for the legacy of my historic university, and the space it continues to create for the next generation of Black America.