Preserving Black Excellence at Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Editor’s Note: Dr. Cameryn Blackmore—a scholar and practitioner dedicated to invoking change within the policymaking arena—was a 2021 African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Fellow. Blackmore is dedicated to preserving the historical significance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and focused her Action Fund project on an analysis of preservation practices at three of these historic institutions.
My admiration for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) began while growing up as a Black girl with Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in my backyard. Witnessing Black excellence—the idea of success and leadership brought on by determination and persistence—via a post-secondary educational institution created to provide opportunity to Black citizens, always warmed my heart. Attending summer camp and football games on the campus of Southern University was my first introduction to the importance of HBCUs and the communities they served. As I grew up, I realized that embedded within that role as a center of cultural and community life, is the historical significance of the physical locations of these institutions.
As a fellow with the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, I explored my love for HBCUs using a historic preservation lens. As a political science scholar, I understand the importance of preserving history to ensure we are incorporating ideas and policies that uplift historically excluded communities often facing disparities that prevent generational advancement. For HBCUs, this is a critical component for institutional growth. Historic preservation projects create an opportunity for HBCUs to increase visibility of their institutions and contributions to society.
During my fellowship, I completed two HBCU research projects designed to highlight historic preservation work at three HBCUs while also identifying gaps in practice which hold space for further preservation work at each of these institutions. My first project focused on HBCUs contributions during the Civil Rights Movement, while my second project explored historical preservation of antebellum spaces and sites of enslavement at HBCUs.
Preserving the Antebellum Spaces at HBCUs
One of the first steps in planning for these two projects was to work with Tiffany Tolbert, senior director for preservation of the Action Fund, where we grounded the historical preservation work at HBCUs in the larger discussion of the preservation of Civil War monuments and memorials.
In recent years, there has been a push to remove statues and other spaces memorializing the Confederacy. During the same period that many of these statues were constructed, some HBCUs were established, many on former plantations. However, despite some HBCUs existing in similar antebellum spaces, these institutions are typically excluded from current conversations about the period. It is imperative that the history of this transformation—from sites of forced labor to educational institutions providing opportunities to former enslaved people and their descendants—be amplified within academic and mainstream discussions.
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In February 2022, I traveled to Stillman College, Tougaloo College, and Tuskegee University to learn more about how these institutions have preserved their legacies on their campuses, and how they envision completing this work in the future. We chose Stillman College, because of my knowledge of the institution since I lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama while completing my doctoral studies. Tougaloo College and Tuskegee University were chosen due to their historical significance and geographic locations. Both Stillman College and Tuskegee University are recipients of the HBCU Cultural Heritage Stewardship grants awarded by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to complete historic preservation projects.
Tougaloo College is a small, private institution located directly outside of Jackson, Mississippi with a long legacy of supporting the fight for civil rights. I have admired Tougaloo College, since my dear friend Channing (Class of 2010) invited me to visit her on campus during our undergraduate years. The environment at Tougaloo College was so warm and inviting that I can still feel the amazing atmosphere, and so I jumped at the opportunity to share this institution with the world.
Choosing to include Tuskegee University into my project was a no-brainer. Tuskegee University— which at its founding as the Tuskegee Institute was built on a former 100-acre plantation—is the epitome of historic preservation efforts in the HBCU world. The University has an extensive partnership with the National Park Service, which designated the campus as the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site in 1974. This partnership allowed the institution to restore and maintain historical spaces on its campus, such as Booker T. Washington’s home “The Oaks,” which is currently being renovated.
Today, the only antebellum property remaining is the President’s house “Grey Columns,” which originally served as the center of a 5,000-acre cotton plantation owned by the Varner family. The mansion remained in the family until it was acquired by the National Park Service in 1974, and it was only until the the 1980s that it was repurposed as the Grey Columns Presidential Home.
Tuskegee serves as a great example of the historic preservation opportunities that other HBCUs can take advantage of that both reflect the ingenuity of its founders at a time of segregation and discrimination.
How HBCUs Lead the Way
While visiting these three institutions, I gained a deeper admiration for how Black people in this country continually do more with less. The funding gap between HBCUs and predominately white institutions (PWIs) continues to grow, yet HBCUs continue to lead the way in producing some of America’s greatest Black scholars. During my visit, I was most impressed with the student-led projects stemming from Tougaloo College and Tuskegee University.
Tougaloo has an art gallery that is geared towards honoring the contribution Tougaloo College made during the Civil Rights Movement. Students were involved in researching and selecting the pieces that would be placed in the gallery. Similarly, Tuskegee has engaged its students through researching former buildings that no longer exist on campus to construct a virtual campus tour. People will be able to tour the campus and learn more about the buildings as they existed since the establishment of Tuskegee.
Stillman College is mindful of its mission and is planning to restore one of its oldest buildings on campus, Winsbourgh Hall, for the purpose of community engagement. The current president, Dr. Cynthia Warrick, announced the assisted living community for senior citizens living in the Tuscaloosa community will be built in Winsbourgh Hall. This not only creates an opportunity for the public, but also for the students who will be able to get hands-on training at the center.
All this great work at HBCUs continues to keep these institutions relevant, not only for the communities they serve, but for society at large. Opportunities for expansion into the communities are widespread including engaging with the tourism industry, a key focus of my Stillman project. Another example is the art gallery at Tougaloo which is a must see for people visiting the Jackson area. Promotion of the art gallery encourages visitation and encourages people to not only learn about the gallery itself, but the institution.
It is my hope that my projects continue the discussions of historic preservation work at HBCUs. These are sacred spaces that must be preserved and honored. There is room for expansion of these projects, and I hope to see HBCUs collaborate with one another to adopt successful models that can lead to these institutions receiving the visibility they rightfully deserve.
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