Heirloom—Planting as We Rise
Sheree Renée Thomas, Danielle L. Littlefield
& Danian Darrel Jerry
Let them tell the story that we have saved and sown, carried, cultivated, known, and nurtured—protect that which we must preserve, that which contains and replicates the site of our collective memory. The story is told that, from Africa, seeds of rice crossed the ocean to be planted about the seven shores, sewn into the braids of girls and women taken captive to be sold as slaves. These seeds held the very intention of survival, carried the spirit of the land they left behind. Later, in the dark centuries of captivity, faced with separation, women braided seeds and even gold into the braids of their sold-away children and those who made plans to escape. Despite our unfathomable suffering, we have passed on many heirlooms. So too must we continue this passing on through the practice of Black arts and letters carried and cultivated at our historically Black colleges and universities.
Since their inception, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been plagued by institutional double-consciousness. A telling majority of HBCUs, in fact, ninety of the just over one hundred, are located in the southeast region—most of them born in the four and a half decades following Lincoln’s assassination and the ratification of the yet-inadequate Thirteenth Amendment. Founded by white missionaries, the CME and African Methodist Episcopal church, and the U.S. government, these Black institutions were seeded in competing ideals and purposes. While white religious groups, and often the Black middle class, prioritized assimilation, college land grants erected Black schools on parceled out ex-Confederate grounds presoaked with the blood and the sacrifice of the formerly enslaved. Just as America and those haunted plantation lands held their own conflicting spirits, so too have the intellectual bodies they support. At HBCUs, the unrelenting force of white political pressure, state and civilian violence, internal sabotage, and purse-string paternalism have lived alongside the promise of Black prestige, the practice of Black achievement, and the vibrancy of Black art and culture, intellect, tradition, and innovation.
During the pre–Civil War era of American slavery, literacy was a crime punishable by mutilation and death. Upon Emancipation, Black people openly sought the dream that had been so long withheld. Free not only from bondage but from the legislation that limited their ac-cess to education, the desire to learn and grow burned in the hearts of bondspeople of all ages. Records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, oral histories, personal letters, and diaries, as well as carefully handwritten signatures and accounts from the Freedmen’s Bank registers, reveal that the newly emancipated sought education with a fervor unmatched. The backlash was swift and devastating.
In the years following the Civil War, our nation witnessed tens of thousands killed as white mobs resisted the perceived “threat” of Black education. Black schools across the country were burned and destroyed in massacres. Schools like LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee, formerly Lincoln Chapel, were burned to the ground in the mas-sacre of 1866. Every Black church and school in the city was destroyed in three terrifying, fiery nights. And yet, from the ashes, they rebuilt. Over the span of their existence, Black college campuses have been the site of both inimitable Black peace and communion and unmentionable white violence. Remember Fisk University in 1924–1925? Remember Voorhees College in South Carolina in 1968, where police killed three students and wounded twenty-seven, most of them shot while fleeing? Remember Southern University in 1972, where police killed two students during a peaceful student protest? Remember Jackson State University in 1970, where police sprayed more than 150 rounds into and across a women’s dormitory, killing Phillip L. Gibbs, a JSU junior and brand-new father, and James Earl Green, a high school senior yet to see adulthood, who was walking in the opposite direction of the protest on his way home from work? The holes from these bullets remain visible today.
Exactly one century after the onset trend of the formation of HB-CUs, the Higher Education Act of 1965 officially defined an HBCU as a school of higher learning that was accredited and established before 1964. It declared the principal mission of HBCUs the education of stu-dents of African descent. Those established after the one-hundred-year mark were defined as Predominately Black Institutions (PBIs), yet in the mouths and hearts of the Black community, such distinctions are hardly ever made.
Some of the most celebrated artists, entrepreneurs, educators, civic leaders, physicians, and innovators matriculated from HBCUs. Like our ancestors, the full number is too numerous to name. Legendary civil-rights activist, antilynching journalist, and cofounder of the NAACP Ida B. Wells-Barnett graduated from Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Renowned artist Romare Bearden began his storied career at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Artist John Biggers, who studied under Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett, graduated from Hampton University after beginning his education at Lincoln Academy in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. He went on to teach for thirty-four years at Texas State University, shaping generations of fine artists to come.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall began his historic journey in the nation’s capital at Howard University. Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison graduated from Howard University with a degree in En-glish in 1953. Academy Award–nominated actress Taraji P. Henson ma-jored in Theater Arts while there, as did iconic sisters Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen. Songstress Robert Flack graduated from Howard as well. Sean Combs, aka P. Diddy, interned at Uptown Records while studying there. The Black Panther himself, the late Chadwick Boseman, and Vice President Kamala Harris both graduated from Howard Uni-versity. Oprah began her legendary career in broadcasting and entertainment at Tennessee State University, and Nikki Giovanni graduated from Fisk University, both in Nashville.
Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Jericho Brown, interviewed in this volume, is a proud Dillard University graduate, who studied poetry with Louisiana Poet Laureate Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy. Award-winning author Tayari Jones graduated from Spelman, as did Oscar Award–winning filmmaker and director Spike Lee and actress Keshia Knight Pulliam.
Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker studied at Spelman for two years. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, and Saul Williams are all Morehouse men. Comedian Wanda Sykes is an alum of Hampton University. Comedian and radio personality Rickey Smiley is an alum of Alabama State University, and songstress Erykah Badu attended Gram-bling State University. Gospel great Yolanda Adams is a graduate of Texas Southern University. News anchors Jacque Reid and Pam Oliver are Clark Atlanta University and Florida A&M University (FAMU) alumni.
FAMU also boasts award-winning “triple threat” actress Anika Noni Rose and Golden Globe Award winner Common. American bass player Chuck Rainey III, who performed and recorded with Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, and Steely Dan, studied at Lane College in Ten-nessee. Singer Towanda Braxton graduated from Bowie State University. Musicians Randy Jackson and David Banner graduated from Southern University. Entertainer Lionel Richie and radio personality Tom Joyner graduated from Tuskegee. Award-winning novelist and poet Honorée Fannone Jeffers graduated from Talladega College, Alabama’s oldest private HBCU. The roll call of Black excellence shaped by HBCUs could go on and on.
The future of our Black institutions of higher learning is as inextricably tied to their foundations as strings in a Gordian knot, the paths to progress woven in patterns intricate as tribal braids. Whether by swift action or the precision of decision, we follow those paths in infinite cir-cles. Bishop Benjamin Tanner believed that “elevation must come from within,” and it was on this principle that the foundations of HBCUs were cemented. It is with this spirit that we will nurture and keep those heirloom seeds we have planted and seen rise.