As I sat proudly with my 9-year old daughter last night and watched Barack Obama become the first Black nominee of a major political party, I couldn’t help but think about the role of our nation’s Black colleges in shaping and building the Black middle class. Even though Obama did not attend a Black college, these historic institutions and their graduates have had a great impact on this man and his life.
Black colleges have built the African-American middle class in this country, educating individuals who are the nation’s political leaders, doctors, teachers, judges, scientists, professors and business leaders. These individuals have worked tirelessly to change the racial climate in the United States in a way that has made it possible for Obama to succeed.
According to Joy Williamson in her new book Radicalizing the Ebony Tower, Black colleges also served as movement centers for the Black freedom struggle, educating students who risked their lives in support of equality for all Americans. Without the efforts of these students, and those faculty and administrators at Black colleges who supported them, Obama would have been hard pressed to secure the Democratic nomination.
Black colleges also have a legacy of encouraging civic engagement and participation – a legacy upon which Obama capitalized. He used community organizing – a tradition that has been nurtured by Black colleges and the Black church – and used it to create a movement for change in the United States.
Although Barack Obama was only 3 years old when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, he has learned immensely from those who went before him – especially those who attended Black colleges. The question before us now, in terms of Black colleges, is how will these institutions fare during an Obama presidency?
Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).