I’m a fan of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and have been ever since doing some research on colleges and universities in Florida (when I was teaching at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa). My research led me to Bethune-Cookman University, which was founded by Mary McLeod Bethune in Daytona Beach, Florida in 1904—with $1.50. Originally a school for “literary and industrial training” for African American girls, the school developed into a normal school and then into an Institute, a junior college, a college, and eventually a university. Through the decades, the development of Bethune-Cookman stood as testimony to the vigor and determination of one woman.
Well, that was in the 1960s, but it started me on following HBCUs, such as Ohio’s Wilberforce University, near Columbus where I taught at Ohio State for many years. Wilberforce was founded in 1856 and says of its mission, “As the Underground Railroad provided a route from physical bondage, the University was formed to provide an intellectual Mecca and refuge from slavery’s first rule: ignorance.” While I was at Ohio State I got to visit Wilberforce and to conduct a series of campus exchanges. As always when I visit a historically Black college, I learned about fascinating people, like Hallie Quinn Brown, who attended and later taught at Wilberforce and represented the United States at the International Congress of Women in London in 1899. (You can read about Brown’s teaching of rhetoric, writing, and speaking in Susan Kates’s “Activist Rhetorics and American Higher Education.”)
I was fortunate during my time at Ohio State to become friends with Beverly Moss, who has taught me a great deal and who talked with me about her undergraduate education at HBCU Spelman College (and neighboring Morehouse). I got to know more about Spelman as I worked with graduate students who had attended those schools, and later at Stanford I was able to help one of my undergrads spend a term at Spelman, a term she said deeply influenced her education and her ways of thinking.
So it probably goes without saying that I jump at every chance to visit an HBCU. My most recent opportunity came a couple of weeks ago when I traveled to Tallahassee to visit Florida A&M University. I’ve read quite a bit about the founding of FAMU in 1887 as a normal school for African American students—and I’ve followed the ups and downs and ups of their fabled marching band. But I had never had a chance to spend time on the campus. I arrived too late to go to campus but went the next morning in time to stroll around the grounds a bit before conducting a workshop on teaching writing with faculty members in English. There I met a vibrant group, from a brand new member fresh from the Ph.D. to a person who had taught FAMU students for 59 years (!), and all of them committed and connected to the 10,000 strong student body there.
After the workshop, I had a couple of hours free, so I headed over to the Black Archives Research Center and Museum and learned about many alums, including tennis great Althea Gibson and Effie Carrie Mitchell Hampton (right), the first African American physician to practice in Florida.
I also saw original panels of early comics artist Richard Outcault’s “Pore Lil Mose,” the first comic in the United States to feature (and positively) an African American character. As someone who routinely taught courses on comics and graphic narratives, I certainly knew about Outcault—but did NOT know about Pore Lil Mose, which is quite remarkable to me.
I also visited FAMU’s bustling Writing Research Center, directed by Professor Veronica Yon, to meet some remarkable tutors, and to see the center in action. The place was absolutely humming, almost every table taken up with tutors and students working on writing.
One thing I always appreciate during such visits
is the extraordinary openness and friendliness of the students, and this visit to FAMU was no exception. On my walks around campus, I was welcomed by a number of students, who recognized me from a poster announcing the public talk I was to give that night: I even got a big hug from one beautiful and bright first-year student! So I wasn’t surprised at the warm welcome I got at the Writing Center, but I was delighted when one of the tutors identified herself as a member of a spoken word group, Voices, and who volunteered to perform some poetry at a reception scheduled before my talk. True to her word, she and another Voices participant showed up at the reception and performed two wonderfully rich and provocative poems, with energy and grace and poise. Wonderful!
When the time for my own talk came, I tried hard to draw on the energy and poise of those student poets. I talked about the opportunities students now have to inhabit multiple literacies in ways that could hardly have been imagined even two decades ago, and later I enjoyed a lively Q and A session. The audience included faculty from FAMU and several other nearby universities, as well as many FAMU students. As always at HBCUs, I received very direct and often tough questions (“What made you want to write?” “How do you nurture creativity in academic writing?” “How did you first get published?” “Have you ever been misunderstood in your writing—and what did you do about it?”) Their own answers to some of these questions went well past anything I might have said.
When I got back to my hotel, I realized I’d been on campus, going nonstop, for 12 hours. Yet I felt I had enough energy to run around the hotel more than once. Indeed, I did take a walk, just to think back over the day and to take in all I had seen and learned.
So many thanks to my generous and gracious hosts at FAMU for a truly remarkable couple of days. Now I’m looking forward to my NEXT visit.