Betsy DeVos’ statement concerning Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) was a painful display of a fundamental misunderstanding of the tragic history of race and education in America. To consider HBCUs as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice” is a revisionist rendering of history, at best, and a blatant disregard for the legacy of segregation and resistance in America, at worst.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities, private institutions such as Morehouse College and Spelman College, or public institutions such as Grambling University and Jackson State University, were not established because African Americans had limited “options” for an education. They were so often the only option for African Americans who were systematically denied entry to other institutions of higher learning. Following the Civil War, church denominations, mission societies and philanthropists established HBCUs in order to educate formerly enslaved African Americans. By providing quality education to formerly enslaved African Americans, HBCUs resisted a racist education system that fought to restrict learning to wealthy families of European descent. These schools continued to serve African Americans when the flawed constitutional logic of Plessey v. Ferguson and Jim Crow segregation laws created educational apartheid in America. This long history of disenfranchisement has contributed to the current achievement gap in the United States.
Secretary DeVos’ comments are disheartening and reveal this administration’s lack of understanding concerning the history and role of HBCUs. It is incumbent upon our officials to have a comprehensive and factual grasp of our history in order to better serve our communities and avoid repeating the mistakes of our past. Present educational policy cannot be predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding and misreading of tragic American history