Moral Leadership of HBCUs During Covid-19

Like someone abruptly shaken from a deep sleep, America right now is adjusting our perception to our surroundings. In the past weeks, report after report has come out about the disparate impact of the coronavirus, particularly on the African-American community and, soon experts predict, rural areas.

For those of us who work in or with the higher education sector, we also are adjusting to a new normal of classes moving online or cancelled outright, graduations postponed and budgets under enormous strain. As I thought about the days, months, years and decade before us in higher education, I kept coming back to set of universities that practically define strength and innovation under duress: America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

They are, simply, a national educational treasure. Forged in the face of unrelenting racism, their history of forming community and educating all students who need it resonates deeply in this time. And, their present work can serve as models for how higher education can reshape itself for a post-Covid world.

HBCUs across the country are leveraging their roles as communal touchstones during the Covid-19 pandemic. Meharry Medical College, a historically black health sciences institution, offered their campus as one of the first testing sites for the coronavirus in Nashville, Tennessee. Located in North Nashville, a predominantly minority area of the city, Meharry University saw a need for service. Dr. Duane Smoot, a Meharry University senior administrator, made clear that “operating a testing site on our campuses allows greater access for those in North Nashville who may not have the means or transportation to get tested [elsewhere].”

North Carolina A&T turned their extension program, which reaches rural residents across the state, into a campaign providing resources about how to prevent the spread of coronavirus amongst families and farms. And even as students left campus for their homes, Howard University’s Muslim Student Association provided both spiritual and academic care for each other through virtual sessions over Instagram.

These examples are extraordinary, but not unexpected, particularly if you know the history of HBCUs in America. The overwhelming majority of HBCUs were formed after the Civil War. As many Southern states began to implement Jim Crow segregation policies, universities were formed by educators to train preachers, teachers and other community leaders. Often arising out of the leadership of black churches, HBCUs focused on creating community amongst adversity; both cultivating leadership among its students and serving as a place to explore collective identity in a region and country that degraded, denied and attacked that very identity.

These institutions produced activists, educators, scientists and cultural leaders who focused on not just individual success but the common good. During World War II, HBCUs saved the lives of more than 50 German Jewish refugees. German Jews sought refuge in the U.S., and most needed work visas. Jewish academics found little recourse in many prominent universities across the country, many of them rift with anti-Semitism. HBCUs stepped up. Institutions like North Carolina Central University, Howard University and Tougaloo College hired Jewish academics and researchers, explicitly welcoming them with open arms. Ernst Manasse, a German philosopher hired by NCCU, later reflected that “If I had not found a refuge at that time, I would have been arrested, deported to a Nazi concentration camp, tortured and eventually killed.” He taught at NCCU the rest of his life.

Back then, in a time of societal turmoil, HBCUs led the way. They welcomed others when they could have easily ignored their pleas. Even now, HBCUs serve a diverse set of students, coming from a variety of worldviews and backgrounds. Traditionally underfunded compared with their peers, they still struggle with structural and racial inequities. Yet their track record is unparalleled in succeeding in the face of adversity. Last week, I talked to Reverend Gloria Winston-Harris, the director of the Office of Spiritual Development and Dialogue at NCCU, about how her university is going to get through this. “We are family,” she said, “that’s how.”

The actions of HBCUs arise from their commitment to community. Those familial bonds can be cultivated across higher education, if we pay attention to issues of identity and relationship. As other colleges and universities reshape themselves in this time of uncertainty for the “day after the day after,” I encourage them to look towards, and openly support HBCU campuses that have, with excellence and inspiration, always strived for common action in challenging times. As Rev. Winston-Harris told me before she had to go and jump on a call with a student group, “the tools for tomorrow are already in our hands, they are just waiting to be used.”

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.