Earlier this week, the historically black university Bethune-Cookman University announced that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would deliver the keynote speech at its commencement. The announcement has since been met with controversy given DeVos’ recent comments on HBCUs.
DeVos, a billionaire GOP donor and proponent of school choice once characterized HBCUs as “pioneers” of school choice. She also referred to HBCUs as “alternative options.”
However, historically black colleges and universities weren’t an alternative option for black students seeking higher education — they were the only option for black students. Before the Supreme Court decision in support of racial desegregation of school in 1954, black students were barred from attending the same schools as white students, and the notion of “separate but equal” provided jurisdiction for racial discrimination on college campuses across the country.
The history of segregation has had long-lasting effects on the black community, and these are well documented, particularly when it comes to education. Many HBCUs were privately funded because states refused to provide resources and funding for black students.
The legacy of segregation is still being fought in court as Maryland’s four HBCUs have been in a decade-long federal court battle with the state’s predominantly white universities. The legal fight has been an attempt to end the traces of segregation left behind more than half a century after the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision.
DeVos’ previous comments about HBCUs minimize the broad impact that racial laws had on black students and display her lack of understanding regarding race relations in this country. Still, a petition created by the Bethune-Cookman University Collegiate Chapter of the NAACP has circulated online but has collected a small number of signatures since May 1. However, both the state and national chapters of the NAACP have both denounced the invitation of DeVos.
“Betsy DeVos’ lack of commitment to educate all children fairly and justly is the antithesis to the legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune” said Stephen Green, national youth and college director of the NAACP, when I asked about the invitation and petition from the Bethune-Cookman NAACP campus chapter. “Her invitation to speak at the commencement is a rejection of the values of Bethune’s commitment to preparing leaders for social change.”
Dr. Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), an organization cofounded by Mary McLeod Bethune that supports HBCU students with scholarships, tweeted Tuesday night in support of DeVos’ invitation: “I believe we should hear Secretary DeVos at Bethune-Cookman, just as we want her and President Trump to hear the voices of HBCUs.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Lomax further elaborated by saying, “It is my hope that the Bethune-Cookman and HBCU communities as a whole will give Secretary DeVos the best of our attention as she speaks, just as we want her to give full attention to us when decisions are made that impact HBCUs.”
I agree there needs to be a conversation and dialogue with DeVos, but a speech at commencement is not a dialogue. DeVos and Trump alike have both made statements that not only are false, but they also erase the history of oppression and racism black people have experienced. Through the struggle for educational freedom, institutions such as HBCUs were built to house black students who, even though denied entry to other universities, still were determined to obtain higher learning.
Because of Jim Crow laws, black people had to go to HBCUs to obtain college degrees — there were no “alternative options.” However, there are far better options for a commencement speaker at Bethune-Cookman University. Someone such as former first lady Michelle Obama, whose “Let Girls Learn” program was started with the same principles upon which as Mary McLeod Bethune founded Bethune-Cookman University. These principles empower marginalized groups to tell their stories for themselves and not have someone tell it on their behalf.
After all, commencement speeches are about celebrating the struggles and hardships that brought students to graduation, not about re-writing history.
Photo by Gage Skidmore