Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A Somber Case for HBCUs

Richard Collins III
My heart has been heavy the past few days, due to the murder of Bowie State University student, Richard Collins III--a promising 23-year-old who was set to receive his diploma today on the very site he was slain: the University of Maryland campus, where Bowie holds its commencement exercises. Collins, described as a young man who made friends easily and often went out of his way to help others, recently completed Bowie's rigorous Reserve Officers' Training Corps regimen and had already been commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. On the early morning hours of Saturday, May 20th, Collins, who was waiting with friends for an Uber after a night of celebrating his impending graduation, was randomly approached and stabbed to death by a 22-year-old white University of Maryland student. Because of the student's involvement in an online Facebook group called "Alt-Reich: Nation," which features bigoted posts, the murder is now being investigated as a hate crime.

It would not be long before several University of Maryland Terrapin students would hijack the school's popular "Fear the Turtle" slogan and turn it into a hashtag to share their own encounters of racism on UMD's campus:

"when a group of my friends were told "our kind" was not wanted at a party my freshman year"

"being the only black man on the floor of my freshman dorm gave a coward the courage to call me the n word through the walls"

"when a UMPD officer whispered in my AfAm student's ear: "I could f*ckin' ruin your life right now if I wanted to."

"when the bus driver told black students the bus was full but let white students get on right after"

"I turned down a full ride to Howard & Hampton to be disrespected and unprotected at UMD. If I knew what I know now.."

What we do know is that racist expressions in this country--this world, in fact--are nothing knew and certainly not unheard of on college campuses, particularly at PWIs--predominately white institutions. In fact, a few friends of mine who attended PWIs would share similar stories with me regularly when we reconnected over Spring break. That was over 20 years ago and, as recent as last year, my nephew shared those same experiences with me that he'd encountered at a well respected  PWI in New York City. However, when those derogatory racial expressions manifest into actions that lead to deaths, the hard, uncomfortable conversations must be had. Unfortunately, according to several UMD students, its administrators don't seem ready--or willing--to do that. Whether that's true or will change soon, remains to be seen.

However, this senseless incident motivated me to have my own "water cooler" conversation at work with a fellow co-worker, who happened to be both African-American and a UMD graduate. Sparing the details of the conversation, I'll just say in the end their Terrapin pride would not fully allow them to criticize the lack of action from this institution on whose ground this hideous crime occurred. I didn't relent in my argument, but I also understood their struggle to fully support mine. As a proud Howard University graduate, anyone who knows me will tell you, I can talk about my University all day but YOU can not. It's just like family. So his inability to put aside his alumni pride in order to fully engage in the conversation was disappointing but not surprising. However, one poignant moment that came out of our exchange was his sharing his own past experiences with racism on UMD's campus and of being called the N-word on occasion during his time there. He then said to me, "Well, you know how it is..." before correcting himself and re-stating, "...actually you don't, because you went to Howard." My response: "Exactly."

Graduates at Howard University Commencement
Now, let me be forthright: I was accepted to the University of Maryland as well, and Bowie State, and Tuskegee, and a few other historically black colleges (HBCUs) and PWIs. However, I chose Howard because I had one goal in mind: to be a great journalist, and I heard Howard, less than 10 miles from my childhood home, had an outstanding School of Communications, which I quickly learned was true. At the time, I wasn't motivated to attend Howard for the opportunity to engage more with people who looked like me. After all, I grew up in Prince George's County, noted as the richest African-American county in the country. I was always majorly surrounded by people who looked like me, whether in church, in my community, and from elementary school to high school. So Howard was not a departure from the norm, it was just more of the wonderful same.

However, I soon realized that my upbringing was different than most students I encountered on campus, who rejoiced in the opportunity to openly celebrate themselves, their culture, and their heritage without judgment, fear, or backlash. Although I was firmly steeped in my "blackness," I did come to appreciate the freedom inside the classroom to speak openly about my people's history (and not just in February, as is the norm in standard school curriculum), and dive deeper into our many contributions.

Students at Cheyney University--the U.S.'s first HBCU
The pain and hurt from racism--both directly and institutionally--that most of had mastered pushing down and setting aside on a daily basis in order to assimilate into the larger society, could now be released and dissected openly among peers, and guided by intellectuals, who were readying all of us for the realities of an unfair and, often, unkind world that does see "color." Ironically, one of the most commonly spewed criticisms I've heard from people about those who choose to attend HBCUs is that students are not prepared for the real world. On the contrary, I'd argue that HBCU students are equally as prepared for the real world, if not more, as we enter it armed with a better sense of knowing who we are which, when coupled with our educational prowess, allows us to stand firm in any situation we are placed. We don't shrink when challenged; we don't scurry when confronted; and we don't settle for less than what we deserve. If that isn't preparation for navigating the real world, then I have no idea what is.

Collins graduation robe displayed at BSU Commencement.
I believe Richard Collins III was already a dynamic young man, due in part to his loving mother and father, who raised him to be all that he became in his brief 23 years on earth. But I also believe he embodied even more "fearlessness" and tenacity thanks in part to the love and nurturing he received from his family at Bowie State University, whose motto "Prepare for Life" is instilled in its students every day. At a time when United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos can be ignorant enough to call HBCUs forged at the height of racial segregation “pioneers” of  “school choice” (when in fact HBCUs were then the only choice for African-Americans, less one be caught at a PWI and risk becoming "strange fruit" hanging from campus trees), and as our country's Administration flirts with cutting funding from HBCUs because they're no longer seen as "needed," in the memory of Richard Collins' and the hateful racism that caused his death, I beg to differ and hope it serves as a reminder not only of the necessity of these schools but also of the work that still needs to be done to heal an insufferably, sick world.

This is not to say that HBCUs don't have their share of headaches and heartaches; God knows they do. But at a time in a young person's life when balancing Calculus classes, tuition fees, and marching band rehearsals is stressful enough, at the very least, a student should be able to cross a college campus in peace without carrying the weight of a racial slur shouted at them in addition to their backpack full of books. Life will provide enough opportunities for race to rear its ugly head; an institution of "high learning" should not be one of them.

RIP Brave Soldier. Your HBCU family salutes you.

Photo Credits: N/A


  1. First, condolences to this young man's family and friend's. This is sad to say the least. This assassination (because that's what it was) of promising black males reminds me of what we went through in the Reconstruction Era. Our general desire was equal opportunity so that we could do for ourselves. Well, we were doing just that until there were interruptions through concerted efforts from the outside to thwart our progress. It is safe to say that it was done in fear and probably also to reify the false rhetoric that blacks are innately a bunch of lazy somethings. I would say that today the former is in full effect. PE coined it best, "Fear of a Black Planet"!

  2. As a freshman at Howard, one of my best friends went to U of Md CP and I traveled to that campus quite often in my day. When I found out about this tragedy it took me back there; this could have easily been me.

    What is even more alarming is how there seems to e a hesitance to call this a hate crime; not just from the University but the state prosecutor. When it was found out the killer was part of an Alt-Right Facebook group, the spin got out there quickly that this group was merely 'satire'..nevermind that it was filled with racist memes from what I understand about black folks. I have no illusion of who is in control of this system at all levels, but it does not make it any less disheartening that folks can basically "hide in plain sight" with their racists agendas against our people.

    Fight The Power