Shortly after returning to Howard University as a professor in 2013, Jennifer Thomas found herself overcome with emotion. Tears formed in his eyes as the school song rang out from the Washington, DC campus clock tower.
Thomas called it a “full circle” moment. She spent 25 years as an award-winning local and national television producer, almost always the only black woman in her job. But there she was, back on The Yard, as a journalism professor, and the juxtaposition of college years and new careers side by side was poignant.
“The reality of teaching students who have walked the same paths as me was very surreal,” she said. “I even teach in the same classrooms where I was a student. And some of my teachers are now my colleagues. It was all the most overwhelming thing.
Overwhelming, but rewarding. Thomas said she made the choice to change careers for a reason: the opportunity to educate black students at a historically black college.
“I was perfectly intentional in coming to Howard,” Thomas, the college’s journalism streak coordinator, told NBC News. “And I was over the moon to be here. For black professors, working at an HBCU can’t be about the money. It is a vocation.
The issue of black college professors – and tenure – came to the fore this spring when Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was appointed to the University of North Carolina School of Journalism. been controversially delayed.
Although it was approved in a long process, members of the UNC board declined its confirmation, apparently because they were uncomfortable with the “1619 project” that she created two years ago for the New York Times Magazine. Among conservatives, the draft describing the founding of the country in 1619, when the first documented African slaves arrived in colonial Virginia, was seen as unpatriotic and controversial.
After a public battle and protests from UNC students and faculty, Hannah-Jones was finally offered a position, but instead announced that she had accepted a position at Howard University, with the award-winning reporter Ta-Nehisi Coates.
His decision shed light on the intrinsic value of black professors teaching black students at black universities.
“I decided that instead of fighting to prove that I belong to an institution which, until 1955, forbade black Americans to attend, I will instead work in the legacy of a university not not built by slaves but for those who once were, ”she said. wrote in a statement. “I can’t imagine working and advancing a school named after a man who lobbied me, who used his wealth to influence hires and the ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all my credentials, all my work, because he believed that a project centered on black Americans was tantamount to bashing white Americans. Nor can I work in an institution whose management has authorized this conduct and has done nothing to disavow it. ”
Gerard McShepard watched the Hannah-Jones saga unfold and walked away proud of his actions. He understands something about being tenured. He can tell you the time – 1:33 p.m. on May 7 – that he was told he had become a full professor of microbiology and other subjects at Virginia Union University, one of the oldest historically black schools. from America. It meant so much to him that he documented the occasion down to the minute.
He later treated himself to a “nice dinner, a bottle of wine, a new suit,” among other things, McShepard said. “And I haven’t finished celebrating either.”
Such is the exhilaration and relief – but most of all the satisfaction – that black HBCU professors say comes with reaching the zenith of academia. The permanence ensures the job security of professors; in some cases, this allows academics to research and teach topics that may be considered controversial, including racial inequality.
“I come from a line of educators going back to my grandmother, mother and father and sister,” said McShepard, who received all of his degrees from HBCU: bachelor’s degree from Fisk University, master’s degree from l ‘Tennessee State University and PhD from Meharry Medical College. .
“Being a teacher at an HBCU is very valuable,” he said. “We still teach a lot of first generation students, and it is possible to have a small classroom to shape and shape the leaders of tomorrow. I always say that academic success protects the name of the university, and this is how we do our part to ensure that young academics reach the finish line in their educational endeavors.
Gerry White, a sociology professor at Clark University in Atlanta – who will be tenured after the next academic year – called Hannah-Jones’ decision “absolutely brilliant.” He pointed out, however, that black journalism students at UNC, in particular, would lose out.
White said Hannah-Jones’ decision was not drastic, but conscientious.
“When you choose to teach at an HBCU, you give back,” White said. “For her to bring her genius and talents to an HBCU, I mean they get a gift because we really don’t just teach at an HBCU; we are flocking. We pour into a student body all of our shared and relatable experiences that we know they will face as they face the world.
Thomas got her tenure at Howard in 2019, which she said served as a validation of her career, but she said it also meant she had a confirmed path to continue to prepare students to help change the figures of imbalanced diversity in the media.
“I was an intern producer, and then 20 years later when I left CNN I was the first and only black executive producer on a news program on the network,” she said. . “So this shows that in the space of 20 years, not much has changed. And in order for us to make a meaningful difference by changing the narrative, or perspective, or adding context to the stories we tell, we have to be in the room.
This point sheds light on the importance of Hannah-Jones landing in an HBCU. David R. Squires graduated from the UNC Journalism program in 1980. A three-year speaker at North Carolina A&T State University, an HBCU, Squires agreed with the 41 UNC faculty members who have writes an open letter saying, “Although disappointed, we are not surprised. … The appalling treatment of one of our country’s most decorated journalists by her own alma mater was humiliating, inappropriate and unfair.
Squires said it was “not shocking in the climate of white supremacy we live in today and the ongoing quest to undermine talented black people.”
While he said he “loved and appreciated” his time as a student at Chapel Hill, he recalled many concerns he and other black students had about fairness. In particular, as the editor of Black Ink, the black student newspaper, securing funding was “always a challenge,” he said.
“The UNC had a reputation for being a liberal school,” he said. “But the insiders knew differently. I had a journalism scholarship, and at one point I did a lot of critical journalism at university on racial issues. Well when they announced scholarships for the next semester my name was not called. They took away my purse. I always thought it was because of what I wrote in Black Ink. “
But that didn’t quench his mind. Squires went on to become an award-winning sports journalist and spent the last few years teaching at historically black colleges. When he lived in Virginia, he taught several free courses at Hampton University for four years, just to make an impact. He embraced the community nature of HBCUs.
“It’s very loving and nurturing,” he said. “You have the impression that most of your teachers – most of them black, some of them white – are there on missions. They are there because they want to help the students because they understand the unique situation of students as black people in America.
White said he had a cultural eye-opening when he arrived on Clark’s campus as a graduate student, and it inspired him to return there to teach.
“Before I got to Clark, I had a black teacher in my life,” White said. “There were so many amazingly bright black students and professors who were black. That’s when I wanted to teach there, because I’m able to give everything I would have liked to have had when I was an undergraduate in a PWI ”, or a predominantly white establishment.
White taught at a predominantly white college before moving to Clark nearly six years ago. The differences in experiences were stark, he said.
“I enjoyed teaching at the University of Georgia. But it’s different from teaching white students, ”he explained. “At UGA, you hear a dialogue at the macro level, about practices and policies. At Clark, you hear the micro-dialogue, about direct service, like counseling, helping people. At UGA, you have to get them to read the material first and then talk to them about it. Otherwise, he can get lost in the translation. I can’t talk about the Trail of Tears, for example, and expect them to buy into it. They have to read it and then we can talk about it, bring it to life. “
“In an HBCU it’s more assertive,” White continued. “We first tell them about the material we cover, unpack everything, share ideas – then get them to read. There is no way that things will get lost in the translation. We can discuss this with the black students right away … and then they will read the material to find out more. This is the difference in the approach. And I can tell you, it’s hard to find a black professor in an HBCU who doesn’t want to be there.
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