Doing a New Thing – A 21st Century Vision for AME HBCUs

Arguably, the two most important black spaces in America are HBCUs and the Black Church. The importance and connection of both is outlined in the new documentary, “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” The title of this documentary is attributed Richard Wright Sr., and serves as a directive which influenced not just the arc of the film, but several historically black campuses.

Tell them we are rising is a charge that we all must keep, but which holds particular value within the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The AME Church is the first independent black denomination in America―and the only Church credited in this documentary for establishing Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The AME Church has long been a champion for black Americans (whether enslaved, freed, or in modern times, freed with a side of oppressed). The founding of the AME Church is steeped in value for black bodies, minds, and spirits. The AME Church’s firm objection to the American Missionary Association is a clear indication that we determine what rising looks like – a progression which does not involve creating another eurocentric community for black people, black thought, black expression, or our black being in any form.

The AME Church knew that black ideas, values, and issues had to be addressed in a manner that no white, surrogate advocacy organization (or individual) could or would manage effectively. They knew that we deserved our own institutions, much like how AME Church Founder and first Bishop Richard Allen knew that we needed a theology that was our own.

Its foundation and the creation of affiliated HBCUs is one that dictates that we must always do the work and keep our institutions in order to tell them we are rising.

Our rising has been defined by victories and setbacks. Right now, we are in an interesting place. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the combined enrollment of the five accredited AME HBCUs is approximately 5,189 students.

Some of our institutions are experiencing great growth in securing diverse funding, student enrollment, and program offerings. Paul Quinn College is the first HBCU that doubles as an urban work college. This double designation allows PQC to receive an increase in funding and this allows students to incur less debt and improves their educational experience through increased opportunity. Additionally, PQC does not have any institutional debt―the College received a 2.5 million dollar gift from Trammell S. Crow to satisfy its balances.

Shorter College is also experiencing great success in establishing new partnerships with fellow Arkansas institutions and other AME institutions. Perhaps, their most impactful achievement is being named one of 69 institutions (one of three HBCUs) participating in the Second Chance Pell Grant Experimental Sites for Incarcerated Students.

But there are sad stories at the other end of the spectrum. Towards the end of the documentary, Morris Brown College is used as a cautionary example of what happens when our HBCUs are not valued. MBC illustrates the complicated nature of higher education leadership and decision making; it is representative of the beauty and struggle of the HBCU mission, which has claimed far too many campuses in recent years.

Population data for Morris Brown College is unavailable but it is still open with an estimated 50 students attending as of Fall 2017.

Tell Them We Are Rising’s time loop ends around the late 80’s. By then, three AME schools (Kittrell College, Western University, and Daniel Payne College) had already been closed. It is incumbent upon the AME Church to investigate and implement creative strategies which can strengthen our surviving institutions.

Perhaps, an AME school system is a strategy to help member schools achieve greater financial strength with shared resources and melded academic agreements among member institutions. In this proposed school system, there would be one President and six chancellors. For all of the achievements that AME schools like Paul Quinn College or Shorter College have individually experienced, those achievements are marred by the condition of Morris Brown College.

In our rising, maybe it is time to consider doing a new thing. We can rise above the old adage, “you’re only as strong as your weakest link.”