Amos’s Sermon: In Considering Hurricane Relief, Don’t Forget the Black Colleges


“Amos,” began the German graduate student at Columbia University having brunch at my table in International House New York on a sunny Saturday in June, “I’ve heard that America has black colleges, universities full of black students and professors. What?”

“Yes, we do,” I replied to the young man of about 25 years puzzled by such an arrangement. “In fact, there are about 100 historically black colleges and universities in America, mostly in the Southern states you may never get to visit while you earn your degree here.

“These are the schools founded after slavery, usually by white missionaries and Protestant educators, to educate the freed slaves who had demonstrated the capacity to learn and the willingness to improve themselves and lead their race out of its ordinary subservience to white people.

“Until the late 1900s in the South, virtually all of the colleges and universities were all white, and refused to admit black applicants. After blacks were freed from slavery, church groups showed up to educate and train the blacks. In every Southern state, including my home state of Kentucky, the state government opened public black colleges assumed to obviate the need for racial integration in the white colleges.

“So, for the past 135 years or so, mostly in the South, a class of educated blacks has flourished as educated in these places and has perpetuated proudly these remarkable testaments to blacks determined to overcome.”

My friend’s mouth fell open, not only because he assumed America to be more integrated than to maintain so proudly such vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow segregation in the year 2005, but also because he never viewed the South, rural or otherwise, as a place to which relatively privileged Americans would send their children to be educated, or to live as an intellectual.

I felt obligated to open the good man’s eyes. I reminded him that “A Different World,” the hit situation comedy created almost twenty years ago by Bill Cosby that is still shown in syndication in America as well as in Western Europe, was set at fictional Hillman College, which was historically black and located in Virginia. In reality, the video scenes of the campus’s buildings were shot on the campus of the all-women Spelman College in Atlanta, one of the three or four selective black colleges that regularly send the most talented of their alumni to our very own Harvard Law School. Morehouse College, the men’s equivalent and probably the greatest producer of distinguished clergymen of any liberal arts college in the world, is adjacent to Spelman’s campus. Both were founded by and remain affiliated with the American Baptist Churches in the United States.

The historical significance of such universities burst once again onto the international scene this week in light of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. Those disasters have left Xavier University and Dillard University, two private, historically black New Orleans schools with a combined enrollment of about 6,000, in dire need of cash. On Sunday, Peter Applebome of the New York Times reported that their flooded campus buildings (in low-lying neighborhoods) and relatively low endowments have left the schools in positions far different from the major white institutions of the city, which include the University of New Orleans, Loyola University, and Tulane University. The white schools surely will bounce back; only God knows what will happen to Roman Catholic-related Xavier and United Methodist-affiliated Dillard. (While Harvard Law School has enrolled twenty-five students from Tulane and Loyola in response to the tragedy, Harvard College appears to be unwilling to offer the same kind of temporary aid to Xavier and Dillard undergraduates, probably because of the uncertainty swirling around when and whether Dillard and Xavier ever will reopen.)

Applebome painted a remarkable portrait of these schools’ accomplishments over the years. He reported: “Xavier, the nation’s only historically black Catholic university, is a remarkably successful generator of black doctors, pharmacists and scientists; it has produced a quarter of the black pharmacists in the country and produces more future black doctors than any other undergraduate institution. Dillard has a more traditional liberal arts focus. …[T]hey are a reminder that New Orleans has also been home to a rich African-American cultural tradition of writers, teachers and scholars. Even before the Civil War, New Orleans had the largest and most cultivated population of free, educated blacks in North America.” Dillard counts among its alumni Bishop Alfred Norris Sr., former president of the Interdenominational Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University, Dr. Mitchell Wright Spellman, dean emeritus for International Projects, director of Harvard Medical International, dean emeritus for Medical Services, and professor of surgery emeritus at Harvard Medical School, and Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and former ambassador to the United Nations.

According to Daniel C. Thompson, author of the 1986 book “A Black Elite: A Profile of Graduates of UNCF Colleges,” the schools were opened with a dual mission that has endured: to prepare students “to pursue various careers and to function as effective, humane leaders and advocates for the great disadvantaged, disesteemed, and relatively powerless black masses.” David H. Jackson, Jr., has found the schools, as a group, remarkably effective in fulfilling this mission. In a 2002 article in the journal Education, this authority on historically black colleges and universities pointed out that by the early 1990s the undergraduate divisions had educated almost 40 percent of America’s black college graduates, 80 percent of black federal judges, 85 percent of all black doctors, 75 percent of all black Ph.D.s, 50 percent of black engineers, and 46 percent of all black business professionals – at a time when most black college graduates had attended historically white colleges. Moreover, historically black health-profession schools have trained an estimated 40% of black physicians, 75% of black veterinarians, 50% of black pharmacists, and 40% of the nation’s black dentists.

The vitality of these universities is widely recognized, as chronicled recently by Dr. Sean B. Seymore of the Notre Dame Law School, who has raised interesting questions about the continued public funding of historically black state schools in light of recent Supreme Court opinions. Twenty-four years ago President Reagan established the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities to empower these institutions to “overcome the effects of discriminatory treatment.” President George H. W. Bush established the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities to instruct the President and the Secretary of Education on how to increase both HBCU participation in federal programs and the role of the private sector in strengthening HBCUs. President Clinton appointed a senior executive in each federal agency to implement the Order. President George W. Bush transferred the Initiative to the Department of Education and proclaimed the week of September 28, 2001, “National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week.”

Despite their accomplishments and recognition, more than 100 years after they proliferated all over the South and in a few Northern states including Ohio and Pennsylvania, the combined endowment of all of the approximately 100 historically black colleges and universities is less than ten percent of Harvard University’s endowment. This is not because of a lack of historical effort by alumni and students themselves, however. The time has come for us to pay closer attention to these international treasures in our midst.

Later this year, Harvard Law Direct Action, an organization I happen to lead, will sponsor a screening of an “American Experience” documentary on the students who sacrificed to raise money for highly regarded Fisk University of Nashville, Tenn.
, in its hour of need more than 120 years ago. Those committed students traveled the world, became famous, enabled erection of what is now the oldest building in the South for the higher education of blacks, and left their university on financial footing solid enough for it to become during the mid 1900s the first black college with a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and an art collection known throughout the world.

Like those original Jubilee Singers and their diverse and generous benefactors including Queen Victoria herself, may Americans today rise to the contemporary challenges to protect those treasured Gulf-region institutions facing a natural obstacle whose effects we know to be surmountable.

Amos Jones is a 3L from Lexington, KY. Reach him at

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