For These Families, H.B.C.U.s Aren’t Just an Option. They’re a Tradition.
For Theodore “Tedd” Alexander III, 60, going to college was a given. For Mr. Alexander’s father, Theodore Alexander II, which college was also a done deal.
“Son, you may go wherever you like,” Mr. Alexander remembers his father telling him. “But I’ll be sending the check to Morehouse.”
All-male Morehouse College, founded in 1867 in Atlanta, is one of the United States’ leading H.B.C.U.s, an acronym for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Morehouse is also where Mr. Alexander’s father and his father’s father had earned their degrees. Mr. Alexander followed suit, graduating in 1984, and has been an ardent supporter of the school ever since.
“It was the best decision I never made,” he joked.
Now Mr. Alexander’s own sons — Theo (Class of ’17), Julian (’19) and Cameron (’23) — have kept the tradition going. They’ve been encouraged by both of their parents (their mother, Teri B. Alexander, graduated from Spelman College, an all-female H.B.C.U. across the street from Morehouse, in 1985), as well as by trips to Homecoming and, as needed, by repetitions of the family dictum on tuition destination. (That notion — that you can go where you like but the tuition will be sent to an H.B.C.U. — is not unique to the Alexanders.)
The H.B.C.U. designation, according to the federal government, requires that an institution be established before 1964 and that, in keeping with the Higher Education Act of 1965, its “principal mission” be the education of Black Americans. Among the 105 currently operating H.B.C.U.s there are a range of origin stories: Some were formed by missionary societies and farmers’ coalitions, others funded by land grants and Quaker philanthropists and oil barons.
All these institutions, though, were founded with a common purpose: to educate a population that routinely had been denied even the most rudimentary level of literacy (for fear, as an 1830 North Carolina law put it, that “the teaching of slaves to read and write has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion”).
Students at any college who are the descendants of alumni are considered “legacy admissions,” according to Jasmine Harris, an associate professor of African American studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, whose research focuses on academic outcomes for underrepresented groups in higher education. But while the term “legacy admissions” is freighted by a history of cronyism and discrimination more generally, she said, that history does not apply to H.B.C.U.s.
The practice of giving formal or informal consideration to legacy applicants, Ms. Harris said, originated at elite, predominantly white schools as an instrument of ethnic exclusion. “While the policy is meant in its modern conception to support the familial connection that folks feel to these institutions, that wasn’t the initial premise,” she said. “Ivy Leagues were the first to institute legacy admission policies and that was specifically to keep out Jewish people and immigrants of all kinds.”
At Spelman College, while the application does ask about legacy connections, Chelsea Holley, the school’s director of admissions, said that no quantitative weight is attached to the answer. What legacy status can indicate, she said, is that the applicant is familiar with and drawn to the history and culture of Spelman. “When we talk about legacies in the African American community,” she said, “we’re still only one or two generations removed from people who only had access to a grade-school education. So this idea of privilege being passed down doesn’t ring the same for our schools.”
Recent Issues on America’s College Campuses
For these legacy families, an H.B.C.U. has become the school of choice for generations because these families believe the schools offer an essential, formative experience that will expand their children’s understanding of what it can mean to be Black in America.
Tedd Alexander III remembers feeling at home the moment he set foot on Morehouse’s campus as a freshman. “The entire spectrum of the Black experience was right there in front of me,” he said. His classmates hailed from various regional, social, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds but a collective identity transcended those differences. His experience, he said, fortified him for life after college. “There’s no class called ‘How Do I Become a Successful Black Man in White America.’ That class isn’t taught,” he said. “And yet that is a part of what you leave with. I like to call it a coat of arms that allows me to go to a firm like T. Rowe Price and be very confident about what my capabilities are and why I’m there.”
Julian Alexander, 25, said that until he went to Morehouse he had never experienced a majority Black environment, other than in sports. “In my high school,” he said of the private, majority-white school he and his brothers attended, “you kind of felt like a number.” Morehouse, he said, invited him to thrive. “At Morehouse, when you get on campus, they say there’s a crown put over your head that you need to grow into. Morehouse definitely expects big things from us, and so we just try our best to grow into what we’re supposed to become.”
“I loved every second of it,” said Jacqueline Antoine, 83, of her years at Hampton University in Virginia. Ms. Antoine, who graduated in 1960, is part of a five-generation Hampton family that traces its lineage back to a woman named Susie Hayes, who graduated in 1918 when the school was still called the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute.
Ms. Hayes’s diploma is now displayed proudly in the home of Jacqueline Antoine’s daughter Janine, a high school principal in Los Angeles, who also earned her degrees from Hampton (a B.A. in ’83 and a Masters in ’86). Ms. Hayes, who died at age 92, lived long enough to see Janine enter her senior year at Hampton. “She didn’t get to see me graduate,” said Janine, “which was one of the heartbreakers of my life.”
When Jacqueline Antoine’s three children reached college age, she told them they had to try an H.B.C.U. for at least two years. “They didn’t have a choice. I wanted them to get the fellowship and the camaraderie and sense of belonging that I saw at the H.B.C.U.s. I didn’t want them to get lost,” she said.
Janine went to Hampton; the other children went to Spelman and Morehouse, and all three stayed through to graduation.
Even at five generations, the Antoines’ H.B.C.U. legacy is not the longest on record. That title presumably goes to the Wayne family, who have documented a seven-generation run at Grambling State University in Louisiana. Thanks largely to the efforts of one member, Hattie Wayne (’71), the family holds the Guinness World Record for most family members (40) to graduate from one university.
Since Guinness awarded the designation back in 2010, Grambling has confirmed at least 10 more graduates from the family and about 30 more who attended but didn’t finish. “We could beat our own record,” Ms. Wayne said. “We call Grambling our village.”
‘For me, it was Wakanda’
One family actively building its legacy is the Cains of Winston-Salem, N.C. Randell Cain Jr. and his wife, Cynthia, have sent two sons to his alma mater, Morehouse, and are hoping that their third, still in high school, will make it a trifecta.
Their older daughter Olivia, 21, graduates on May 15 from Spelman College, which their younger daughter Victoria, 17, will enter next fall. Victoria applied to four H.B.C.U.s, was accepted to all of them and, by choosing Spelman, cemented the Cains’ identity as a “Spel-House family,” according to Olivia.
Her father, Randell Cain, is the pastor of a church in Winston-Salem and the founder of a minority- and women-owned investment firm. He has earned degrees from Georgia Institute of Technology, Hood Theological Seminary and Harvard Business School, but of all the degrees Mr. Cain has amassed (he’s currently working on a fifth), the institution he feels most tied to is Morehouse (’91).
“Georgia Tech is going to be Georgia Tech, regardless of how Randy Cain does,” he said. “I’m important to Morehouse. How I do is important for the person who comes behind me. I’m not just representing Randy and mom and dad, I’m representing Morehouse College. When I step in a room, as it says in scripture, I’ve got ‘a cloud of witnesses’ who step in the room with me and are cheering me on.”
Morehouse was the first place where someone addressed him as “Mr. Cain,” he recalled, and that was transformative. “For me, as a person of color, H.B.C.U.s represent validation of self that is incredibly important. Every house has house rules: When you go into somebody else’s house, you have to play by their rules. H.B.C.U.s are our houses. We get to play by our rules.” He likens his time at Morehouse to the mythical African kingdom featured in “Black Panther.” “For me, it was Wakanda,” he said. “It was one of the few environments where I felt like if I did well or did not, it would not have anything to do with what I looked like.”
Olivia Cain said that after being one of five Black students in her high school class of 70, Spelman has been a relief. She remembers how, in middle school, her cheeks burned when a substitute teacher championed slavery as a successful economic system — how alone she felt as the only Black person in the room. Coming to Spelman, “there’s a weight lifted off your chest,” she said.
She was rooting for her younger sister to become part of the “Spel-House” family throughout Victoria’s college application process, but Victoria didn’t need much convincing. “Where I am now, people like me who achieve like me is a rare thing,” Victoria said. “To be surrounded by people who look like me and are in high-level classes like me just excites me because it’s like, I’m not going to be the only one.”
‘Not just involved, but leading’
Angela Farris Watkins is a fourth-generation Spelmanite (’86) who has been a professor of psychology at Spelman for 27 years. H.B.C.U. alumni like Randell Cain and Tedd Alexander, she said, send their children not only out of a sense of pride but also out of a confidence, born of their own experience, that their child will be safe: protected emotionally, psychologically and, in some cases, physically.
Dr. Watkins credits the founders of H.B.C.U.s, including the missionary societies that launched Spelman and Morehouse, with wanting “to make sure that those who had been enslaved were now educated properly.” Beyond offering academics, she said, these institutions were intended to be “a place of cultural responsiveness.”
That objective has never wavered. “It’s always been about ‘Black lives matter.’ If we are talking during enslavement, if we are talking during Jim Crow and segregation, and now, same thing. Black lives matter,” Dr. Watkins said. “Those missionaries recognized how important it would be to further the experience of freedom. Freedom wasn’t just not being enslaved anymore. It was being in a place where you could thrive and survive. So H.B.C.U.s are known to be that place of safety, of comfort, of pride and of doing well.”
When Black students are in the minority of a student body, she said, they have to navigate racial biases and stereotypes. Even if predominantly white institutions are not purposefully being negligent, they can often “place cultural demands on students that take away bandwidth from really studying, really focusing.”
On the other hand, the H.B.C.U. “was very much intended to be a place of nurturing, a place that recognized that the world was not very kind to those of African descent. That really has been the secret sauce of H.B.C.U.s.”
More than most people, perhaps, Dr. Watkins has witnessed the impact of the H.B.C.U. experience on a personal level, as well as in society at large. Her familial connection to Morehouse graduates includes a close relative whose name is synonymous with social change.
“Everybody knows the name Martin Luther King Jr., but they don’t really think about the context that he came out of,” Dr. Watkins said, referring to the civil rights leader who was also her uncle. It was during his time at Morehouse that the Rev. Dr. King was called to the ministry and first heard about Mahatma Gandhi and the concept of nonviolent resistance. Both King’s father and his grandfather also graduated from Morehouse, which Dr. Watkins credited for encouraging them to become “entrenched in social justice causes — not just involved, but leading.” For example, King’s predecessors cultivated a robust congregation at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and helped found the Atlanta chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. in 1917.
The H.B.C.U. influence on King ran even deeper, said Dr. Watkins — his mother, sister and grandmother all attended Spelman and went on to become community activists. “My uncle would say the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Dr. Watkins said. “Well, H.B.C.U.s are helping that arc bend toward justice.”
Not only that, Dr. Watkins said, but these family legacies will continue to shape the future. “H.B.C.U.s have been a game changer for the whole world because of — or through — African Americans who have been lifted up, anchored, equipped to set about change in the world.”
Mr. Cain’s son Preston is currently in high school and thinking about his educational future. No decisions have yet been made but Mr. Cain is hopeful that his family’s streak might continue. “I would love to be around long enough to see a grandson or granddaughter go to a Morehouse or Spelman,” he said. “Now, if they chose not to, I’ll still love them the same. But would my heart skip a beat if they say, ‘Hey, I want to go’? Absolutely.”
Caroline Clarke contributed research.