The memory is seared in my mind: the smell of grilled food wafting in the air, horns from a band blaring joyously while neat rows of women pranced eight-count dance routines down the asphalt street, their hair whipping in the wind, their faces radiant. There was an unmistakable feeling of being at a family reunion; the joyous atmosphere was contagious.
This is my first memory of Hampton University.
As a little girl I didn’t understand what I was seeing -- I only knew that my mom had dragged my siblings and me to a fall football game where she stopped and greeted people every five minutes to show us off. I didn’t understand her excitement about coming to this place, to homecoming, with its beautifully manicured lawns and ancient buildings. Now, as a legacy alum of the same school, I have a greater appreciation for the rich history of this Historically Black University.
Hampton University alum Terryn Hall (second from right) with friends at one of the school's football games in 2005. (Photo courtesy of Terryn Hall)
What Are HBCUs?
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are a constellation of higher education institutions; many were started as land grants founded to educate newly freed slaves after the Civil War. Some are private, while others are state universities, but all have a common commitment to providing quality education to the students who need it most. There are 105 across the country, including five Virginia schools: Hampton University, Norfolk State University, Virginia Union University, Virginia State University, and Virginia University of Lynchburg.
Why Are They Important?
“HBCUs are very relevant, as we would have very few black teachers, doctors, pharmacists, scientists, etc. without them,” according to Dr. Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading authority on historically black colleges. “Given their resources, research shows that they are more successful with low-income, students of color. They have equal gains but use fewer resources.” While challenging, this determination to do more with less is a testament to the commitment these schools have to their students.
And while HBCUs are “historically black,” they are open to all and serve a number of students from across the country and the world. Two of Virginia’s HBCUs, Norfolk State and Virginia State, are public universities that offer affordable options for students looking to save money while also obtaining a top rate education.
“Since 1935, Norfolk State University (NSU) has served as a beacon of access and opportunity for many, without regard to race, socioeconomic status, gender or age,” states Dr. Deborah C. Fontaine, Norfolk State’s interim Vice President for University Advancement. “NSU’s purpose in 1935 is similar to its mission today: to transform lives and communities by empowering individuals to maximize their potential as lifelong learners.”
In July, Virginia State University in Petersburg was ranked number 12 out of 104 HBCUs in the United States by academic ranking and resource website, College Choice. The ranking was based “exclusively on factors actual college freshmen said were most important to their college decision,” according to the website, including “academic reputation, financial aid offerings, overall cost, and success of graduates in the post-college job market.” VSU’s Reginald F. Lewis College of Business, cited as one of the best business schools in the country, also adds to the school’s standout reputation.
HBCUs, especially those in Virginia, contribute to important science and technology advancement. Hampton’s Proton Beam Therapy Institute, opened in 2010, is helping cancer patients regain their health with an innovative treatment center located in Hampton.
It is one of eight such treatment centers in the country. Norfolk State is a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense and is gaining a reputation as a hub for cyber security education, a crucial labor market of the (increasingly digital) future.
Hometown HBCUs Produce Top Talent
Virginia Union University is in the heart of Richmond, and has been open since 1865. It’s also produced a number of luminaries, including the first black governor of Virginia, L. Douglas Wilder, basketball star Ben Wallace, and Roslyn Brock, chairwoman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Clovia Lawrence, a longtime Richmond radio personality known as much for her mellifluous voice as she is for her deep-rooted commitment to the community, is also a graduate of Virginia Union and credits the school for exposing her to new ideas and giving her the confidence to be successful in her work.
Clovia Lawrence, a longtime Richmond radio personality, is a VUU alumnae. (Photo by Jay Paul)
“Actually, my grandfather was a graduate of Virginia Union University,” Lawrence says. She says her grandfather’s experiences at the school are what drew her to attend. She followed his path to VUU and pursued journalism as a major. “I’m going to this university with this rich history; I have to carry this on,” Lawrence thought. After graduating she went on to become a popular radio show host in Richmond, with a special tie to Richmond’s urban community.
When a stressed caller to her midday show admitted she wanted to kill herself, Lawrence sprang into action. She took a break and followed up with the caller and used her connections to help the single mom. After this incident Lawrence felt the tug to do more community-focused work, a value that was emphasized during her time at VUU. She turned to fellow university alum Gov. Wilder for advice about possibly switching careers to become a public servant, but he encouraged her to serve with her strengths, journalism and radio. “Well how does that jive with music?” he mused. She figured it out, and has been engaged ever since in addressing important community issues in Richmond through dynamic radio programming and reporting.
Dr. Claude G. Perkins, President and CEO of Virginia Union University, echoes Lawrence’s view that service is a core part of the University’s ethos. “The hallmark of Virginia Union is associated with our ability to produce outstanding professionals who are concerned about their communities and willing to give up their time and talent to make this country a better place,” he says. “In essence, we produce leaders.”
As a student at Hampton University, I often took for granted the beauty of the campus, the history of the institution, and the unique courses the school offers (sailing and equestrian club, anyone?). But looking back, what I appreciate most are the friends I made and the lessons I learned -- that hard work and persistence will pay off, that I have something unique and beautiful to bring into the world, and that I am where I am only because of the people who sacrificed to provide an educational space for people like me. This sentiment is shared in every interaction I have with other HBCU alum; no matter where our alma mater, there is a sense of deep gratitude for the family bond, experiences, and opportunities that our institutions afforded us. That’s the beauty of HBCUs.
The Fierce Five: Learn more about Virginia's Historically Black Colleges and Universities here.