Shining a spotlight on Historically Black Colleges and Universities
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - As we celebrate Black History Month, we shine a spotlight on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Sarah Verser went to homecoming at Stillman College to show why alumni say HBCUs are still as important today.
There is nothing quite like homecoming. The parties and dancing, tailgating and food. And since the shutdowns of the pandemic, this year it means more than ever to folks like retired Marine Corps. Lt. General Willie J. Williams, who is revered on the Stillman College campus. But if you let him tell it, he owes his success to this historically Black institution.
Williams’ even making history himself as third in line in the chain of command at Marine Corps. Headquarters.
”I was one of the first three African Americans to be promoted to three-star general in the Marine Corps. In the history of the Marine Corps.,“ Williams said. “In 1969 and ‘70, as I was preparing to leave high school, I had no intentions of attending college. It was not on my radar, although I was an honor student at school. But I was a welfare kid coming from a single mom who did not have a job, so there was, in my mind, no way that I was going to be able to go to school.”
Until teachers from his Moundville High School stepped up and showed up at Stillman and, “They read off a list of financial aid - work study enough for me to get in. I’m pretty sure they did my application, because I don’t remember doing my application.”
Today, there are examples like that all over this campus. Stillman grad after grad after grad telling me their stories, which they say underscores the importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Dr. Irene Pruitt Little, the daughter of sharecroppers, retired as Director of the Office of Small Business and Civil Rights for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington. “When people say I am for Alabama, I am for Alabama, I could never think that because Alabama was never an option for me,” said Little.
HBCUs were born because African Americans were excluded, not allowed to go to colleges and universities in the U.S. where white students attended. So, HBCUs flourished as incubators, raising up leaders immersed in African American culture and academic excellence.
People here just call it family. Dr. Lawrence Potter Jr.’s grandfather and father all went to Historically Black Colleges. “Growing up I knew the power of an HBCU. Many of my teachers graduated from HBCUs.” “Stillman has given me, I think, viewpoint. It’s given me perspective. It’s given me foundation to really think with a widening of understanding, and I think that’s what HBCUs do.
Senior Ronnie Williams is the first Mr. Stillman. “They forced me to tap into my potential they knew I had that I didn’t know I had. That’s pretty much what Stillman did for me, man. It molded me into the man I am today.”
Dean Demarcus Hopson, with the Black Male Initiative, said “We often hear, especially in the 21st Century, there is no need for HBCUs, there is no need for Hispanic institutions that are serving to those cultures and communities, and I say they are needed more now then they were in their establishment.” Hopson is the Director of the Black Male Initiative which recently received a $100,000 check from the Alabama Power Foundation for its mission to help ensure Black men who start college stay in school until they graduate.
“The majority of our students are from Alabama. And the chances of them actually matriculating into graduation is slim to none. As students of the data, 11 percent actually, so the BMI program helps become the counter narrative,” said Hopson. “We’re seeing our numbers in terms of participation in the classroom go up. So a student who came extremely non-traditional 1.4 was his high school transcript, 3.8 at the college level scholars who are turning 2.5 into a 3.8.”
Dean Hopson argues it’s because students can get something here they can’t get anywhere else, and he says that is precisely why America needs HBCUs.
“When I hear the Alphas chant on the yard, I hear the Deltas chant on the yard, I see those (and) I am reminded of our ancestors. Other cultures may not see and understand it, but for those of us who do, why not come and get some of it?” said Hopson. “When I hear that question my response is always ‘Why not?’ Why not delve into the African traditions of our heritage? Why not join in with the dancing and the beat of the drum and heritage of the step? So why not? That’s who we are as a people,” said Hopson
There is now a leadership school on the Stillman campus in honor of Lt. General Willie J. Williams.
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