Father Maurice Nutt “EDUCATION:  OUR PASSPORT TO THE FUTURE”

The saying is cliché but it is undeniably true: knowledge is power. This holds true especially in our modern capitalistic society of the United States. In order to get a decent job that pays well, the minimum requirement is a bachelor’s degree. African Americans have certain fields that we have excelled in such as music, entertainment, and sports but the common African American will not be a professional basketball player or the next great movie star. These African Americans must have another plan in order to reach their goals, which must be accompanied by education. Through time, African Americans have gained so much through the access to education, but the road to get here, as a people have been a long one.

African Americans have come from literally the very depths of American society to become one of the most respected groups in American history. African Americans sadly started out in the United States as slaves. In American society we were viewed as nothing more than property and were treated as such. This sad revelation helps to explain why African Americans education in America started out so rough. It was illegal to teach a slave to read and write during the time of slavery so many African Americans were completely illiterate. Some slaves found ways to learn how to read, but there were not many places that could be called institutions for them to learn. Not only were there not many ways to learn how to read and write, but also many slave masters would punish their slaves severely if they found that they had acquired the ability to read or write. Slaves were kept ignorant to the fact that there were ways in which they could be freed because they didn’t have the resources they needed educationally. The nation of the United States looked at Blacks as inferior because they were not educated and because they only viewed them as property. Though the constitution proclaimed all men are created equal, this phrase excluded Blacks from the equation. Many of the founding fathers of our nation were slave owners and some viewed Blacks as intellectually inferior to whites such as Thomas Jefferson. All these factors helped to perpetuate the view that Blacks were ignorant and incapable of being educated citizens. This is not a justification for the rights that were denied to Blacks but a view of how Blacks were viewed during the time of slavery.

After the Civil War, slavery finally ended in the United States. Even though slavery was over in the United States, education for Blacks was still very hard to come by. Education in the South was very poor, especially when compared to the North. The education that whites received was not as accessible to Blacks as it was to whites. This made it very hard for Blacks to go find jobs. The great educator Booker T. Washington marked the era after the Civil War. Washington did what no one had done before him; he helped create an educational system for Blacks in the South. He helped to found the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute and was the main voice of the Black community until his death in 1915. The Tuskegee Institute helped to create many teachers and skilled craftsman who could hand down their skills to younger generations. Booker T. Washington’s vision for the future was very brilliant in seeing that the main way for Blacks to gain more freedom was by obtaining more education in their community. By creating the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington helped African Americans become stronger and more powerful in the United States economically. Not only did African Americans grow more economically stronger, but also the Tuskegee Institute helped to sow the seeds of change. A new generation of activists for change grew to become more educated and helped to inspire change after Booker T. Washington such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and W.E.B. Dubois. These men would have never had the opportunities they had if it were not for the things that Booker T. Washington did for the African American community’s education. This new generation eventually became the civil rights movement, which turned the entire United States segregationist movement on its back and changed America forever. This new America became an America where Blacks had the same opportunities as whites to go to just about whatever school they wished to go to. With this came the creation of affirmative action. Affirmative action was the creation of opportunities in employment, health programs, and education for all minorities. This furthered the ability for African Americans to reach their goals through education, especially when it came to higher education in colleges. The place that education is at now for African Americans in education is the best that it has ever been in history.

When Barack Obama was elected the president of the United States it did great things for African Americans in many different ways. Educationally Barack Obama has become the nail in the coffin for those who wanted to prevent African American achievement. He has also given many people hope because his story is that of the American dream. He has reached where he has gotten because of the great education he has received at the several institutions, including Harvard, which he has attended. His education would never have been possible without all the things that his predecessors did to get African Americans where we are today. Obama has also shown America what an African American can do when he or she gets a great education. Barack Obama has also eliminated the excuses that some African Americans use to explain why they don’t succeed in America. Many people use excuses that because they are Black; they are never given the opportunities that others receive. This idea has been completely destroyed because Barack has shown that anyone can be what they want to be with a good education and the drive to match History has proved that the acquisition of education has changed the fortunes of African Americans in the United States.

The Data Book clearly documented that the growth of African-American men and women in higher education has outpaced that of white men and women over the past three decades. Data produced by the Patterson Research Institute shows that between 1976 and 1997:

  • Undergraduate enrollment of African-American men increased by 21%.
  •  Undergraduate enrollment of African-American women increased by 68%.
  •  Graduate enrollment of African-American men increased by 34%.
  •  Graduate enrollment of African-American women increased by 91%.
  •  Professional school enrollment of African-American men increased by 27%.
  •  Professional school enrollment of African-American women increased by 209%.
  •  Bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-American men increased by 30%.
  •  Bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-American women increased by 77%.
  •  Professional degrees awarded to African-American men increased by 22%.
  •  Professional degrees awarded to African -American women increased by 288%.

Admittedly, although these figures are encouraging, African Americans still have a long way to go since the base lines were so low. African Americans have come from 8% of all students enrolled in college in 1970 to 11% of students enrolled today. This is great progress, but still below the 12% of the American population and 14.5% of the college-age population that African Americans represent. The goal for the African-American community should be “over-representation” in higher education and in every discipline!

What are the reasons for this significant progress? If we are to continue this progress to equal and hopefully “over representation,” then we must understand clearly the reasons for the progress.

First, these strides have not occurred by magic or some extraterrestrial intervention. The gains are attributable largely to the African-American community and its grass roots efforts. Black folks have always understood and stressed the importance of education. Even when it was illegal to teach them the basics of reading and writing during slavery, or when they had to walk miles to attend second-class schools during segregation, the record shows that Black folks took advantage of every opportunity even in a society that mandated compulsory ignorance by law and practice. Education was the way out and up!

Great African-American scholars emerged despite the barriers and became role models and symbols of hope. Edward Bouchet was one of the first {African} Americans to receive a Ph.D. in physics from Yale University in 1876, just 15 years after the first Ph.D. was awarded at Yale in 1861. W.E.B. DuBois received his Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 1895, after studying at the University of Berlin. George Washington Carver earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agriculture from Iowa State in 1896. Ernest E. Just, a zoologist and physiologist, earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1916. Sadie Alexander from the University of Pennsylvania became the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D., and the first American woman to receive a doctorate in economics.

There were also presidents and faculty of Historically Black Colleges and Universities who created a long tradition of academic excellence. Benjamin Mays received his bachelor’s degree from Bates and then a master’s and doctorate from Chicago before leading Morehouse College. Before Dr. Mays, there were people like Mary McLeod Bethune, Frederick Patterson, and my father, William H. Gray, Jr. After growing up in the inner city of Philadelphia, my father went to Bluefield State College in West Virginia (HBCU), the University of Pennsylvania for a master’s degree in chemistry, and later a Ph.D. in education (1941).

They all overcame incredible odds and barriers to succeed academically, but they laid the foundations for Johnetta Cole, Ph.D. anthropology; Ruth Simmons, Ph.D., romance languages; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Ph.D., English language; and Condoleezza Rice, Ph.D., political science. Their families, churches, fraternities, sororities, civil rights groups, community groups and political groups in the African-American community with encouragement and financial resources supported all these scholars.

Secondly, the advances of African Americans in higher education are also due to the dismantling of the historic barriers that prevented African Americans from participating in higher education. Pressures brought down these barriers from the African-American community, changes in public policy, and new college admissions policies. We must remember that segregation did not end until the 1960s and admissions policies did not begin to change dramatically until the 1970s. College admission policies were designed to exclude African Americans, but these policies have been affirmative and inclusive over the last three decades for African Americans and other minorities.

Thirdly, financing higher education has also been a major barrier to college for African Americans. While the need has not been fully met, there has been substantial growth in the federal funds and private support to help finance a college education. The Pell Grant, government student loans, state loan and finance agencies, and family loan programs have all helped to create greater access for African Americans. At the same time there has been a dramatic increase in private support. In 1999, Bill and Melinda Gates made the largest contribution to college scholarships in history with the establishment of the $1 billion Gates Millennium Scholarship Program. The mission of GMSP is to provide poor (Pell Grant eligible), but high achieving African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans with an opportunity to receive a college education. African-American philanthropy is also strong. African- American churches, fraternities and sororities, and professional groups all provide millions of dollars each year to African-American youngsters who strive to pursue a college degree. Leading the charge also are new, wealthy African Americans like Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee and Bob Johnson of BET who are all giving significant money to support African Americans in higher education.

As a result of the increased private philanthropy, the United Negro College Fund has been able to offer our 39 member private historically Black colleges and universities and their students increasing financial support and scholarship funds year after year. Our programs also include scholarships and other opportunities for students nationwide. Today, the UNCF manages more than 450 different scholarship programs, which provide students with scholarships, internships, research opportunities and study abroad experiences…for a full listing go to www.uncf.org. UNCF has helped to graduate over 300,000 men and women, and currently supports over 60,000 students at UNCF member institutions and other colleges and universities.

Finally, gains in the higher education participation of African Americans are not just good for African-American families and communities – they are good for the nation. There is a great and growing demand for skilled workers in the current high-tech, information age in which we live. The census report already shows that we are going through a demographic revolution where minorities increasingly will make up the American workforce at all levels. Bottom line, the better educated the minority population, the more productive and prosperous the country will become.

It is vital that African-American progress in higher education continues and increases in order to achieve representation that is at least equal to our representation in society. It is important also to maintain our educational excellence in order to combat the popular myths that African-American culture does not value education, or that it is anti-intellectual, or labels educational achievement as “acting white.” The evidence of our educational status and progress thus far – despite overwhelming odds against us — ought to put these fallacies to rest, but you and I know that it will not and that the struggle continues. Thus, each of you, every African-American college student today, must excel in school and encourage those that follow to carry on. Because achieving academic excellence is acting Black!

Considers the following gems of wisdom that uplifts the value of education:

  1. Franklin Frazier:  Education in the past has been too much inspiration and too little information!

WEB DuBois:  Education must not simply teach work – it must teach life!

John Hope Franklin:  Education came to be one of the greatest preoccupations, enlightenment was viewed as the greatest single opportunity to escape the indignities what whites were heaping upon us.

Dick Gregory:  Education means to bring out wisdom.  Indoctrination means to push in knowledge.

Cornel West:  Be committed to the life of the mind without falling into the idolatry of the mind.

  1. L. King, Jr:  The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.  Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.

Rev. Dr. Maurice J. Nutt LeMoyne Owen College Alpha Week – April 6, 2011