Another, perhaps unforeseen renaissance, however, has been the rise of black politicians who graduated from these colleges. In addition to Gillum, Stacey Abrams, a gubernatorial candidate in Georgia, and Mandela Barnes, a candidate for lieutenant governor in Wisconsin, both attended historically black colleges. The prospect of so many black-college graduates being elected to statewide office in the same year is unprecedented, Keneshia Grant, an assistant professor of political science at Howard University, told me.
Now, of course, there are HBCU alums across all levels of government. Senator Kamala Harris graduated from Howard University, and the mayors of Atlanta, New Orleans, and Birmingham—all of whom were elected in 2017—also attended HBCUs. And there have previously been governors who attended black colleges: In 1989, Douglas Wilder became the governor of Virginia and the first elected black governor in the United States. In the 1870s, there was P. B. S. Pinchback, who very briefly served as the governor of Louisiana. These candidates—Abrams, Gillum, and Barnes—are continuing that black political tradition.
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However, just as the sheer number of these candidates is different, so too is the energy behind them, particularly for Abrams and Gillum, says Grant—and it’s making them more popular with students at HBCUs. The politicians are vocal in boosting black colleges. They’re celebrities at homecoming. And they’re unyielding in their clap backs during debates.
“It changes the students’ engagement with the materials for the [candidates] to look like them and quote Migos. If you show a clip of a person who is a legitimate candidate who is good on policy and can talk about ‘walking it like he talks it,’” alluding to the viral clip of Gillum that references the lyric from the rap group Migos, “it just takes the lesson [in class] to another level.”
Abrams, Gillum, and Barnes are sending a message, says Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, an HBCU in New Orleans. “It’s a reaffirmation, not only for students but for families, that you can go to an HBCU and compete with anyone.” Kimbrough told me it’s important not only that the candidates attended a historically black college, but also that they’ve embraced it as a fundamental part of their identity.
And the candidates are taking up the mantle of defending black colleges as important institutions, he says. For instance, when Representative Cedric Richmond criticized Senator Bernie Sanders’s education plan for not mentioning HBCUs, Abrams tweeted her agreement: “HBCUs are vital for economic independence,” she wrote. And the institutions, which have struggled across sectors, both public and private, could use the boost.
While it’s unclear whether these black politicians will pull out victories tomorrow, their candidacies could still prove important for HBCUs. “I always tell people you can go wherever you want to go,” says Kimbrough. “We want people to go where there’s a good fit. But don’t just assume because the person went to an HBCU that they aren’t as good.”