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I had one of my all-time great weekends last weekend. I went to my undergraduate college homecoming weekend. I graduated from Morgan State University (Baltimore, MD) and I was celebrating the reunion of the class of ’68 (we kick off our 50th celebration at Homecoming and culminate at Commencement in May 1968). On many of my Facebook posts, I posted photos and comments from the university’s gala, the football game, a class of ’69 reception (that I crashed … because I was supposed to be in that class but did enough summer school credits to graduate with the class of ’68) and my own class party. What struck me throughout the weekend was how many outstanding African Americans have passed through my life at that little college (now about 7,500 students, about 4,000 when I attended).

Morgan State University is celebrating its sesquicentennial and it has been an amazing 150 years. In May, the National Preservation Trust designated the campus a National Treasure. As I sat at the Homecoming Gala of close to 1,000 attendees, I could not help but notice the outstanding accomplishments of fellow Morganites. I sat at a table with a classmate who is the Senate President Pro-Tem of the Maryland State Legislature. Across from me sat a woman who (along with her late husband) has donated $1 million to our Alma Mater. I sat next to a woman who was a partner in a major Wall Street brokerage house. At the table next to me, sat White House correspondent April Ryan (of Sean Spicer, “stop shaking your head” fame) and the Mayor of Baltimore, both Morgan alums. The man who was once mayor of my hometown of Philadelphia is a Morgan State alum. Another man in the class ahead of me became the Chief Justice of the Maryland Court of Appeals. There were several four-star generals at the table. Another of my classmates is a judge in Pennsylvania. One of my roommates became the first woman to pastor a historic 160-year-old church. Another roommate was a fitness expert who had a recurring role on the PBS classic, “Mr. Rogers.”

At the Gala, there were a number of undergraduates. Two spoke to the gathering. One was a physics major who entered the university at age 16 and was carrying a 4.0 into his senior year. The other was a sophomore woman studying computer sciences who spent last summer as an intern at Facebook. In fact, Morgan sent more interns to Silicon Valley last year than any other college/university in the nation. When I graduated my class was awarded more Fulbright Scholarships than any other school. Over time, 115 Morganites have won Fulbright Scholarships because we had a professor who had won several and he offered a “class” for students who were interested in applying for a Fulbright.

In addition to the University’s academic excellence, we have also had athletic excellence. When I attended the football team NEVER lost a game. Our Coach Earl Banks was a legend (a kind of Vince Lombardi or George Halas). Our tiny school produced four NFL Hall of Famers (Roosevelt Brown, Willie Lanier, Leroy Kelly, and Len Ford), while the University of Wisconsin has produced three.

“I am sick of hearing what African-American children cannot do. I am weary of all of the failure rhetoric. I am done with all the discourses that insist that black children need grit and resilience to succeed. What they need to succeed is to be surrounded by adults who care deeply about them. They need adults who do not assume they cannot do things. They need adults who will persist even when it takes them longer to grasp a concept or develop a skill. They need adults who remain in their corner no matter what.”

I share this information because Morgan State is but one of 120 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across this nation (mostly in the South) and each of them has its list of luminaries and outstanding alumni. So many black people of note got their grounding in an HBCU like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jessie Jackson, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Toni Morrison, Taraji P. Henson, Marian Wright Edelman, Thurgood Marshall, David Satcher, Barbara Jordan, George Washington Carver, Langston Hughes, Spike Lee, and Alice Walker. They are but a small sample of African Americans who matriculated at HBCUs.

The larger point of this post is that I am sick of hearing what African-American children cannot do. I am weary of all of the failure rhetoric. I am done with all the discourses that insist that black children need grit and resilience to succeed. What they need to succeed is to be surrounded by adults who care deeply about them. They need adults who do not assume they cannot do things. They need adults who will persist even when it takes them longer to grasp a concept or develop a skill. They need adults who remain in their corner no matter what.

It strikes me as ironic when people tell me how “smart” I am. Yes, I’ve had a great career. I’ve garnered many accolades. But, the truth of the matter is I was just an “ordinary” Black girl growing up in a community who kept encouraging me. My teachers in my segregated elementary school encouraged me. My neighbors encouraged me. My church members encouraged me. My African American physician and dentist both encouraged me. And, when I was admitted into an Ivy League School I declined in favor of an HBCU because I knew I wanted to be surrounded by caring adults. I was right and I went to a place where black excellence abounds.

Written by Gloria Ladson-Billings

Gloria Ladson-Billings

Gloria Ladson-Billings is the Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies for the University of Wisconsin.

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