Birmingham leaders tout the continued relevance of HBCUs

Historically Black Colleges and Universities were the bedrock of education for African Americans during the period of Reconstruction, following the Civil War. For more than 150 years they’ve continued to provide a route to higher learning for millions.
Published: Mar. 1, 2023 at 7:21 AM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Historically Black Colleges and Universities are tied to their communities in ways other institutions of higher learning are not. From their inception, they’ve been tasked with the upliftment and education of an entire people, for whom education was denied for centuries.

Those who’ve been impacted by them say today they are still critical to helping African Americans achieve academic and professional success.

“When I first got here at Miles College, the professors were saying if you need any help we’re here for you, we’re here to advocate and help you. We don’t want to see you fail, we want to see you succeed and graduate and have a productive life,” current Mr. Miles College, Konner Price said.

The senior MBA major from Dallas says the community he’s built at Miles has made it feel like a second home.

“I definitely say I love the school like I have a lot of pride for it. When I go back home, I’m kind of sad I’m leaving Miles College because I love it so much,” Price said.

He also says part of what makes HBCUs like Miles College so unique is the abundance of Black leaders of today giving back to create the leaders of tomorrow.

“Last year I took African American Experience with Dr. Richard Arrington, the first Black mayor of Birmingham, and that was surreal. The history that he’s experienced personally, just for him to be my professor motivated me. Like, greatness is here at Miles College.”

Greatness is also what Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin found during his time at an HBCU

“My historically Black College experience changed my life,” Woodfin said.

The graduate of Morehouse College attributes much of his development as a community-minded leader to the school which produced others like Senator Raphael Warnock, Julian Bond, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“This intentional rigor of leadership, this intentional rigor of community service, and at that three-way intersection of academic rigor, leadership, and community service, it taught me literally how to go from being a boy to a man,” Woodfin said.

One of the biggest examples of the cultural impact HBCUs have on the communities surrounding them happens in Birmingham every year, the Magic City Classic.

“When you look at the Magic City Classic, it is billed as the largest HBCU classic in the nation. You’re talking about 65-70,000 individuals. But you also have the Bayou Classic, you have the Florida Classic, you have the State Fair Classic, and we can go on and on. The SWAC has led FCS attendance 46 of the last 47 years,” South Western Athletic Conference president Dr. Charles McClelland said.

The SWAC is headquartered in Birmingham and is considered one of the premier HBCU athletic conferences in the country. It began in 1920 and has served as a proving ground for some of the greats of the game, providing an opportunity for Black athletes to show they could compete at the same level or better than their white counterparts.

”Athletics transcends a lot of things. It transcends race, it transcends economics, it transcends a lot of bias, “ McClelland said. “When you have a Walter Payton, a Steve McNair, a Jerry Rice, it brings that togetherness.”

He also says what happens on the gridiron isn’t the only thing that brings people to the games.

“If you want to judge how many people are at one of our football games, you don’t do it in the first quarter, you don’t do it in the second quarter you don’t even do it in the third quarter, you do it at half time. No one is at the concession stand, every is in the stands to watch the performances of our magnificent bands.”

Dr. McCelland says the money gained from SWAC games, television contracts, and other revenue is used to help schools that have historically been underfunded.

“We’re like McGyver. We make a way out of no way and we will continue to do so,” McClelland said. “There are always funding challenges, but ours are a lot greater because we are identified as low-resource institutions, but our focus is to be able to generate as much revenue as we possibly can and give that back to the institutions to assist them with the academic pursuits of their athletic programs.”

As to the relevance of HBCUs today, Dr. McClelland says these institutions are still the primary pipeline of Black talent and professionals in the country today.

“Over 50 percent of (Black) doctors, over 50 percent of lawyers, over 50 percent of educational leaders, they all are graduates of HBCUs,” McClelland said. “A lot of people say well why are HBCUs still relevant today? We still provide services primarily for first-generation students, we also have on average 83 percent of our students receive some form of financial aid. So those opportunities are still needed and we provide that service through HBCUs.”

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