U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’s historic selection as the first Black and Asian woman chosen for a major party presidential ticket was particularly sweet for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the most prolific producers of Black political and civic leadership in the country.
Although the more than 100 public and private HBCUs from Pennsylvania to California are often seen as second-class options for students who couldn’t do better, nothing could be further from the truth. More than educational sanctuaries from institutional racism, HBCUs stoke a level of critical thinking and civic responsibility that has made them fountains of American leadership.
Morehouse College graduate Martin Luther King Jr. became the most recognized HBCU product by leading the most significant social movement in American history.
King contemporary and Howard University alumnus Thurgood Marshall had an equally significant effect on America by leading the effort to desegregate public schools before going on to become the nation’s first Black Supreme Court justice.
Howard also produced Harris and countless other American political leaders: Andrew Young, the first Black UN ambassador and first Black mayor of Atlanta, L. Douglas Wilder, the first Black elected U.S. governor (Virginia) since Reconstruction, Patricia Roberts Harris, a former HUD secretary and ambassador to Luxembourg, Letitia James, the New York attorney general who recently filed a lawsuit to dissolve the NRA, and Vernon Jordan, perhaps the most powerful Democratic Party kingmaker of the past 30 years. Even Harris Wofford, a white former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, graduated from Howard.
All HBCUs are leadership factories. Run through a list of prominent leaders in any state and it’ll be littered with HBCU alums.
Iconic Congressman John Lewis, who recently died, went to Fisk University. Activist and two-time presidential candidate Jesse Jackson is a North Carolina A&T University alumnus. And former congresswoman and the first African American elected to the Texas Senate since Reconstruction Barbara Jordan attended Texas Southern University. The list goes on and on.: Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Baltimore States Attorney Marilyn Mosby, intellectual W.E.B. DuBois , and America’s first Black governor (Louisiana) P.B.S. Pinchback.
HBCUs have produced countless American firsts, including the first Black mayors of Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., Jacksonville, Fla., Kansas City, Knoxville, Tenn., New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, Richmond, Va., St. Paul, Minn., Trenton, N.J. and Washington, D.C.
Spelman College’s Paula Hicks-Hudson joined that list when she was elected Toledo mayor in 2015.
Hicks-Hudson, now a state House representative, is not alone in the Buckeye state. Ohio boasts two HBCUs – a rarity outside of the South and East Coast. Wilberforce University, Ohio’s only private HBCU, and Central State University, the only public HBCU in the Midwest, have produced prominent leaders for Ohio and beyond.
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Wilberforce gave Dayton its first Black mayor, James H. McGee, former Congressman Floyd H. Flake, and the first Black woman to serve in the Illinois House of Representatives Floy Clements.
After making history as one of the Little Rock Nine, Elizabeth Eckford came to Central State. CSU also produced former Dayton Mayor Clay Dixon, Xenia’s first Black mayor James T. Henry, Sr., and four-term Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, who has already announced plans for a local campaign event with the vice presidential nominee.
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A fierce HBCU alumnus, Beatty knows what most of America has yet to recognize. Harris is not an exception to the rule when it comes to HBCU graduates. She is the rule.
Howard University graduate Robert J. Vickers is a former political columnist with The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, The (Harrisburg, PA) Patriot-News and The Seattle Times. Until recently he was Central State University’s director of public relations.