U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos was booed at Bethune-Cookman College for a number of reasons, but perhaps her gravest mistake was calling historically black colleges and universities pioneers of school choice.
DeVos’ attempt to compare HBCUs to charter schools was both laughable and insulting. But the mishap was useful in that it re-opened the dialogue about how HBCUs were created; a discussion that’s direly needed at my alma mater Morehouse College, which in recent years has endured an identity crisis.
HBCUs were not formed out of a need for choice. In particular Morehouse was born out of the oppressive soil in Augusta GA, where the Southern Baptist Convention was organized on May 8, 1845. What was the issue then? Northern Baptists should leave the southern Baptist alone and let them maintain the evil system of slavery. Moreover, other HBCUs, Shaw University, Dillard University, Tugaloo College, and Howard University, were formed out of the need to fight long-standing injustices that kept African Americans under-educated and denied the skills to ascend to political and economic equality.
Morehouse was founded in Augusta, GA in 1867 by Rev. William Jefferson White, a cabinet maker, preacher, writer, and publisher of the Georgia Baptist, who wanted to train ministers in reading and writing as a way to rise up and combat slavery.
Thus, this was not to offer multiple education options for black people – back then, there were no such options. But with the ability of famous iconic educators like William Jefferson White to educate our people, to provide the tools for us to become educated and competitive, we were able to fight for, and to some degree afford our liberty that had broader benefits than simply school choice.
The preachers/educators of Morehouse such as Rev. C.T. Walker, who also pastored the great Tabernacle Church of Augusta and led his congregation in the construction of an imposing edifice in 1884, were called upon to be agents not just of scholarship, but of spirituality and social justice. These three tenants of Morehouse became the college’s pillars on how to best educate its students.
In recent years, my alma mater has veered from those tenants. Recent attempts have been made by certain forces to move Morehouse away from its pillars. While the recent push towards STEM careers is important for our education system both at Morehouse and nationally, recently ousted leadership made it a singular focus, rendering instruction in spirituality and social justice as proverbial electives.
We must not forget how this school was born. We must not forget what made HBCUs great; how they contributed not just to the American economy, but also to the betterment of African Americans and our understanding of Ultimate Reality and faith in God.
I appeal to the alumni, the faculty and the Board at Morehouse to get back to our moorings, our brand, as a premier institution, with the understanding that this trinity of pillars has offered far more than just educational choice.
As stated among the “Seven Deadly Social Sins” by Mahatma Gandhi: One cannot have knowledge without character, science without humanity, religion without sacrifice, politics without principle, commerce without morality and wealth without work.
Throughout its 150 years, Morehouse College has not only produced graduates with a mastery of the liberal arts, but rather students who also are poised to uplift our people and society and create positive change rooted in morality and faith; to not only become successful at the office, but also strong contributors at home, within our communities and throughout the world.
Every Morehouse man and every fair thinking person who really knows our history should be troubled over the recent efforts of the faculty to force the board of trustees to not include philosophy and religion as a requirement for graduation. It should also be noted that this move was grounded in false information and a lack of understanding. Though Morehouse is a non-sectarian school, yet is has been broad enough to give every student a basic awareness of the values that are necessary for the human community to survive. This is what a course in philosophy in religion gives exposure to; critical thinking and good ethical practices. If this kind of inclusive academic exercise was good enough for George Kelsey, Rev. CT Walker, Howard Washington Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Julian Bond, Amos Brown, Samuel Jackson, Spike Lee and Lewis Sullivan it should be good enough for all students who matriculate by choice at Morehouse College.
So no, Secretary DeVos, we don’t need your version of school choice. Right now, we must make the decision to return Morehouse College to the pillars that have made the school’s graduates successful and ethical professionals. When we do this, only then will be able to sing our great hymn with understanding and an enlightened spirit: “Dear old Morehouse, dear old Morehouse, We have pledged our lives to thee; And we'll ever, yea forever Give ourselves in loyalty. True forever, true forever, To old Morehouse may we be; So to bind each son the other Into ties more brotherly. Holy Spirit, Holy Spirit, Make us steadfast, honest, true, To old Morehouse, and her ideals, And in all things that we do.”