Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, founded in 1837, is recognized as the nation’s oldest historically Black institution of higher education, or HBCU. Harvard University, founded in 1636, is the U.S.’s oldest institution of higher education.
Both institutions were pioneers of educational change. Yet, these institutions are not viewed with the same level of prestige. Why? What separates these institutions?
Most notably, one institution is historically Black in its history. In a 2017 White House listening session, Vice President Mike Pence stated: “You [HBCUs] deserve far more credit than you actually get… the indisputable conclusion is that [HBCUs] have played a major role, not only in the African-American community, but in the life of the nation, and the life of the nation’s economy.”
A figurative Black and White divide shapes the United States, which consequently shapes education in the nation. The racial divide – supported by government policies, local practice, laws and statutes – influence at all levels where Americans live, how Americans worship and how Americans are educated.
In 2013, Frank Brogan, former chancellor of Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, asked: “If kids of color can go anywhere, why are they choosing Cheyney University?” The answer is embedded in the racial heritage of the nation, though some would rather ignore it. However, to ignore the racial heritage of America, or the current climate of race in the nation, means that you cannot have an informed conversation about HBCUs, past or present.
As a Cheyney alumna, this is my open letter to Brogan and to all who are curious about why kids of color still choose Cheyney.
My educational journey began in the 1990s, when the desegregation and integration of Philadelphia public schools were on the agenda of former Superintendent Constance E. Clayton. I can remember being one of only 12 Black students in my elementary school until the school was forced to integrate via mandatory busing.
I also remember my first encounter with racism. I was in the 2nd grade, and it was the first time I heard the word ‘nigger.’ I did not understand the word, but I knew it applied to the Black students. For instance, in the schoolyard, if a Black and White student got into a fight, a chant was sung: “Fight! Fight! A nigger and a White.” I remember being scolded for singing this song when I got home, and my parents educating me about the meaning of the word.
During this same era, the television show “A Different World” was becoming increasingly popular and was a favorite in my household. It was a “Cosby Show” spinoff that centered around student life at Hillman, a fictional HBCU. I remember an episode in which character Whitley Gilbert explained her choice to attend Hillman rather than Georgetown University, a PWI. Asked “When you were applying to colleges, was Hillman your first choice?” she replied:
“Of course! I was accepted at Georgetown and when I turned them down my guidance counselor threw a hissy fit. She said she couldn’t understand why a girl with so much to offer, like myself, would limit myself to a school like Hillman. That’s what she told me… She did not understand; my great-granddaddy was all but accepted at this certain Ivy League school until he showed up to the interview. He went to Hillman and he went on to become the first Black circuit judge of Madison County, Virginia. He told me when I was 7 years old, ‘Baby, you can go to school any place, but no school will love you and teach you to love yourself and know yourself like Hillman.’”
I continued my educational journey at a majority White high school that was ranked fifth in the city for its academic rigor. I was an average student academically, maintaining a 2.8 GPA while having a part-time job, running track and participating in school clubs, including student government, African American Club, drill team and the yearbook committee. I was very active and even completed an internship within the school’s guidance department.
Through my internship, I gained exposure to information for every college and university I desired to attend, including HBCUs and non-HBCUs. I received fee waivers as a benefit of my internship, which allowed me to apply to as many schools as I desired. In the end, I was accepted into my top choices, including Cheyney, Pennsylvania State University, Temple University, West Chester University and Howard University.
When I made the decision to go to Cheyney, my choice was immediately met with “Black-lash” and criticism from teachers, counselors and peers alike, though my parents were supportive. Like Whitley, teachers also questioned, “Why would you choose Cheyney when you have all these options?” My decision was rooted in my life experiences and those of my grandparents and parents, who lived through the sting of segregation, discrimination and the figurative Black-White divide. I wanted to attend an institution where I was not considered a minority; I could be unapologetically Black and still thrive academically.
Cheyney promised me a home away from home that included a chance to study abroad, participate in collegiate athletics and prepare for graduate studies through an honors academy – all the while being supported with and by people who look like me.
Put simply, I chose Cheyney for two reasons: First, Cheyney is entrenched in important history that is reflective of both my culture and my identity. Second, Cheyney made a promise and commitment to my future and gave me an opportunity to pursue my goals while living out my ancestors’ dreams.
In hindsight, Cheyney fulfilled each of those promises. I traveled and studied throughout the world, competed in collegiate level athletics and obtained both my graduate and terminal degrees. These are reasons that kids of color still choose Cheyney.
No one will question the student who chooses Harvard. My question to former chancellor Brogan is, “Why not Cheyney?”
Dr. Janelle L. Williams is a visiting scholar at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania.