Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Debbie Allen, Jan Carew, Sean John Combs, Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee and Mary Ann Shadd Cary have something in common besides being African Americans. They all attended post secondary institutions that are recognized as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's.) HBCU's have also been a haven for other racialized people in America, including Asian/Pacific Islanders, Hispanic/Latino students. Some of these students have described their experience as having “found refuge, a welcome mat and opportunity” at the HBCU's they attend. Two South Asian men who benefited from attending Howard University and eventually returned to their countries as leaders are Cheddi Jagan (Guyana’s first Prime Minister) who entered Howard University as an 18 year old pre-med student in 1936 and Gurmit Singh Aulakh who is the President of the Council of Khalistan.

While slavery was still considered legal in the USA, those Africans who had managed to buy their freedom or had seized their freedom by escaping from their enslavers, were eager to become educated (by European standards.) HBCU's came out of that need to be educated when African Americans were refused entry into white schools, colleges and universities. White people in America did not want Africans to become literate. Some white people thought that Africans could not be educated; which is ironic considering that the Sankore University was built in 949 in Timbuktu, Mali, West Africa before there were any universities in Europe. Cheyney University of Pennsylvania located in Cheyney, Pennsylvania, established in 1837, was the first HBCU. One of Cheyney’s most recognized graduates was the late Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes’ fame. With the abolition of slavery in 1865, there was more of a demand for institutions of higher learning where African Americans could attend. Today there are 105 HBCU's where some of the most well known and successful African Americans were educated. Erykah Badu, Alex Haley, Jesse Jackson, Toni Morrison, Rosa Parks, Keenan Ivory Wayans and Oprah Winfrey are some of the recognizable alumni of HBCU's.

Beginning in October 1929 with the stock market crash on October 29th 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression in America, privately funded HBCU's suffered because many of their funders suffered heavy losses. The advent of the European tribal warfare (second world war) made matters worse and by 1943 the HBCU's were in a financial crisis. In 1943, Dr. Frederick D. Patterson, president of the Tuskegee Institute, published an open letter to the presidents of private HBCU's urging them to unite and pool their resources and fundraising abilities in an effort to avoid extinction. The letter/article was published in the Pittsburgh Courier on January 30, 1943. The presidents of several HBCU's met and on April 25th, 1944, a group of 27 privately funded HBCU's founded the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). In 1972, to enhance their fundraising drive the UNCF launched a public service advertising campaign encouraging Americans to support the fund using the slogan “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.” At the time of the campaign launch, graduates from UNCF member schools represented more than half of all African Americans in elected office in the United States, 75% of African Americans with Doctorate degrees and 85% of African American doctors. Today the UNCF supports students of 39 private, historically black colleges and universities. The UNCF manages more than 450 programs providing students with scholarships, pair students with mentors; arrange internships, research opportunities and study abroad experiences.
Privately funded HBCU's, supported by the UNCF are located in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveal that although the 105 HBCU's constitute only 3 percent of the colleges and universities in the USA, they graduate 23 percent of African-Americans who earn undergraduate degrees. According to the American Medical Association, Xavier University of Louisiana (HBCU) sends more graduates to medical school than any other university, Black or white. HBCU's, because of their unique sensibility to the special needs of young African American minds, remain the institutions that demonstrate the most effective ability to graduate African American students who are poised to be competitive in the corporate, research, academic, governmental and military arenas.

There has never been a similar concerted effort to afford traditionally marginalized communities in Canada an opportunity to access post secondary education. There are no HBCU's in Canada although African Canadians were as disadvantaged as African Americans. Africans were enslaved in Canada from 1628 beginning with six year old Olivier LeJeune who was kidnapped from his home in Madagascar and sold in Quebec, and ending on August 1st, 1834. Even those Africans who escaped enslavement and fled to Canada as United Empire Loyalists after the American war of Independence were cheated of the land they were promised as people who supported the British. White United Empire Loyalists received land grants while Africans were relegated to forming communities outside the white areas where they became a source of cheap labour for the white United Empire Loyalists. In a documentary produced by an African Canadian about the lives of a community in Nova Scotia, an elder shared that when she was a young woman, white women would phone any home in the African Canadian community and ask for someone to work as a domestic in their (the white women’s) homes. It was just taken for granted that all African Canadian women were available to work as domestic servants for any white family.

At the University of Toronto in 1970, the Transitional Year Program was established through the advocacy and initiative of a group of African Caribbean people. This program has assisted and supported members of traditionally marginalized communities to access post secondary education. It is ironic that as the University of Toronto has announced their intention of honouring one of the founders of the program with an honorary degree next year, they are also moving to dismantle this very important program that grants access to university education to traditionally marginalized groups.

In Saskatchewan there has been some effort to redress the lack of access to post secondary education for one of Canada’s most marginalized communities. In May 1976, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations entered into a federation agreement with the University of Regina, creating the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College (SIFC). The Agreement provided for an independently administered university-college, the mission of which is to serve the academic, cultural and spiritual needs of First Nations’ students. On June 21, 2003, the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College officially changed its name to the First Nations University of Canada. The First Nations University of Canada offers its programs and services on three campuses: Prince Albert (Northern Campus), Regina and Saskatoon, in addition to various communities across Saskatchewan and Canada. The university has been a member of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) since 1994 but was placed on probationary status by the AUCC board in April 2007. At its meeting of April 1, 2008, the AUCC Board voted to lift the probationary status of First Nations University of Canada and restore it to institutional membership status. “The AUCC Board believes it is possible for First Nations University of Canada to protect its uniqueness while, at the same time, sharing the attributes and values fundamental to Canadian universities” was a quote from the Board.

In Toronto, the African Canadian community has been advocating for decades for the establishment of African-centred schools to address the disenfranchisement of our children who disengage from the European centred education system. It has been an uphill struggle to get the trustees of the TDSB to adhere to their policy of establishing alternative schools. In January, after several frustrating “public consultations” accompanied by media frenzy and misinformation to the public, the trustees voted to establish an alternative African centred school based on their almost 40 year policy of establishing alternative schools.

We will probably never graduate a Martin Luther King Jr, or an Oprah Winfrey from a HBCU in Canada but we need to ensure that we hold the TDSB to the task of establishing the African centred alternative school that was supported on January 28th. We will not have another generation of our children disengaging and falling through the cracks because there is no alternative.

Written in May 2008

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