: ‘This is what these institutions were really built for. They were built for this moment’: Kamala Harris graduated from a historically black college

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Senator Kamala Harris will be the first nominee on a major presidential party ticket to graduate from an HBCU. (Photo: Reuters/Carlo Allegri.)

Paula Coates was driving home from work Tuesday when her dad called with news that Joe Biden had selected Sen. Kamala Harris of California to be the vice-presidential nominee for the Democratic party. 

“He was, like, ‘It’s Kamala,’” Coates said.

“I literally started screaming on the phone,” said Coates, a pediatric dentist living in Arlington, Va. “And then tears started welling up. In a way it’s sort of validation, we as Black women, those of us who support the Democratic Party, we’ve been such a back bone, and for her to be tapped it’s, like, someone is finally seeing us for the value that we bring.”

Harris’ story resonated with Coates in other ways too. Like Coates, who graduated from Meharry Medical College’s School of Dentistry, Harris is an alumnae of a Historically Black College; she graduated from Howard University in 1986. Coates and Harris are also members of the same greek-letter organization, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., the historically Black sorority. 

“These institutions have been so significant for so long,” Coates said of HBCUs, and to finally have someone who has been a product of that ascend to a major party’s presidential ticket, “it is amazing.”

If Biden and Harris win, Coates said, “I’ll be proud to be there, wrapped up, if it’s cold outside, in my pink and green scarf and hat,” the colors of AKA. 

In recent history, presidents and vice presidents have largely graduate from a small group of colleges

Though graduates of HBCUs have represented their states in Congress and served at other high levels of government, Harris’ nomination represents the first time an alumnus of one of these schools will be featured on a major party’s presidential ticket. That stands in contrast to a recent history of presidential and vice presidential candidates who were alumni of predominantly white institutions — and, in particular, a handful of Ivy League schools, with which the majority of Americans have no first-hand experience.   

“This is monumental, this is huge for HBCUs to possibly be represented at the highest levels of federal government,” said Jelani Favors, an associate professor of history at Clayton State University and the author of “Shelter in a Time of Storm: How Black Colleges Fostered Generations of Leadership and Activism.”

Harris’ ascension to the ticket is part of a broader narrative of HBCU graduates leading the nation during this moment, said Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, a Historically Black College in New Orleans. 

Just a few examples: Two of the other women the Biden team reportedly considered for the ticket — Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams — graduated from HBCUs.

Ibram X. Kendi, the author of “How to be an Antiracist,” a book millions of Americans have rushed to read in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police, graduated from Florida A&M University, an HBCU. 

HBCU graduates “are playing an outsized role as the country figures out how we move forward with the pandemic of COVID 19, and racism,” Kimbrough said. 

Civil Rights movement ‘exploded out of these campuses’

Students and graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities have always played a prominent role in transformative politics. The schools were first founded in the 19th century as a venue to provide higher education to Black Americans, who, due to racism, were prevented from attending traditionally white institutions. Decades later, the Civil Rights movement, “exploded out of these campuses,” as Favors put it. 

“They really have symbolized for several generations the hopes and dreams of African-Americans in terms of upward mobility, in terms of breaking through and conquering segregation and racism and Jim Crow in this country,” Favors said. “This is what these institutions were really built for, they were built for this moment.”

One of the leaders of the Civil Rights era, Jesse Jackson, was the last HBCU graduate to come close to the presidency, when he ran for the Democratic party nomination in 1984 and 1988. 

Giving the commencement address at his alma mater, North Carolina A&T State University, in 1988, Jackson contrasted his experience with that of his opponents, who graduated from Ivy League schools, which until very recently was one “of those boxes that racism says one must check in order to be successful, much less politically powerful,” said Crystal deGregory,  a research fellow at Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Historic Preservation.

The Los Angeles Times reported of Jackon’s speech at the time, “‘You are among the elite of the world,” Jackson told the graduates. But he warned: ‘You must fight the odds to win. . . . When I compete with [Massachusetts Gov. Michael S.] Dukakis and Bush, that’s Harvard and Yale.’”

Jackson’s candidacy combined with increased popular cultural representation of HBCUs —including on the television show, “A Different World” (where Jackson appeared as a guest) and Spike Lee’s “School Daze” — helped fuel a “golden renaissance” for Black colleges during the 1980s, Favors said.

We may be living through a similar moment, Favors said. Harris’ nomination, combined with pop-culture celebration of HBCUs — including Beyoncé’s Homecoming film and top college basketball recruit, Makur Maker’s decision to attend Howard University — may once again fuel increased interest in HBCUs.

Already, these schools have experienced an enrollment bump in the three years leading up to 2019 in part because of the uptick in racial tension at predominantly white institutions and the increase in public displays of racism after the election of President Donald Trump.

“In the midst of this Black Lives Matter Movement and a lot of the insurrection and anger that we see going on in American streets right now, a lot of Black young Americans are considering Black colleges in the way they hadn’t done so,” Favors said. 

A legacy of ‘political activism among Black women students at Black colleges’

Regardless of whether this moment and Harris’ candidacy provides a boost in enrollment at HBCUs, it’s likely the Biden-Harris ticket will be leaning on the schools, their students and alumni as they campaign. 

“That’s kind of the legacy at Black colleges, they are kindred spirits and kindred institutions,” Favors said. “Whenever they see alumni at kindred institutions making these kinds of moves it typically coalesces and congeals that support across alumni networks.”

That doesn’t mean support will be unconditional. Favors noted that Harris will have to contend with criticism of her record on criminal justice as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general that surfaced during her campaign for president. 

In addition, deGregory, both an alumna and a former employee at various HBCUs, said “we would expect that Harris would be able to transfer some of her advocacy for HBCUs as pronounced in her presidential campaign,” to her role as the vice presidential nominee. 

“Especially given that if the Biden-Harris ticket is to be successful it will be successful in no small measure due to the support of Black women, many of them HBCU graduates and others of them members of Black Greek letter sororities,” deGregory said. 

Indeed, those women paved the way for Harris’ rise, she added. Members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., a Black sorority founded at Howard University in 1913, participated in a historic women’s suffrage march that year, standing up both for their right to vote and to the racism that pervaded the movement. 

Harris “stands in a much larger political history of political activism among Black women students at Black colleges,” deGregory said. “This is a full circle. They were Howard students. They were sorority women. She is a Howard graduate, and she is a sorority woman.”

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