Tonight, my alma mater, Morgan State University, will make its first appearance in the NCAA Division I championship basketball tournament. I am taking a bit of executive privilege and focusing on the triumphs of “Fair Morgan” and historically Black colleges (HBCUs) in general.
Despite a storied athletic tradition, that has produced Hall of Fame athletes and coaches, this is the first time the institution at the crossroads of Coldspring Lane and Hillen Road in Baltimore has made it to the “Big Dance.” It is the story of the redemption of a program that had fallen by the wayside. It is the moral victory of a coach – Todd Bozeman - who simply needed a second chance; a university president – Dr. Earl Richardson - with the vision to see success when no one else did; and an institution of higher education that has achieved success against the odds.
Morgan State, like so many of its fellow HBCUs, has a storied history, founded in the shadow of slavery and challenged in its formative years by Jim Crow. It is an institution that has always beat the odds and confounded critics, first in becoming a state college, then in earning university status and ultimately fighting for its equitable share of state resources to fulfill its mission. Through the years, schools like Morgan, Hampton, Tuskegee and even Howard (yes, our dear rivals down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway) provided refuge to generations of Black students turned away by white institutions. Today these schools continue to attract some of our best and brightest young people, providing a solid educational experience and cultural reinforcement.
In this era of Barack Obama in a so-called “post-racial” America, there are critics who charge that HBCUs are irrelevant, institutional dinosaurs from a period of racial hostility that is now a memory. While much has changed in our nation, the mission of these institutions remains relevant. It does not escape notice that many of the teams in the NCAA tournament, including some of the biggest names in college basketball, will put teams on the hard court dominated by Black players. Still, in the larger scheme of things, it falls to schools like Morgan to embrace Black youth and infuse them with the knowledge and principles necessary to graduate. Many of us could not claim success today had it not been for the compassion and care we received on an HBCU campus.
Too many of our young people who have potential are still discounted by public school systems and shunned by institutions of higher learning. This is particularly true for young Black men. The drop-off in college attendance for Black males is alarming. I have noticed it myself during visits to the Morgan campus. Historically Black colleges may be the only place where our young men have an opportunity to fulfill their destiny in an environment that reinforces their sense of self and acknowledges their value to our society. Far from handholding, these institutions provide the right mix of academics, tough love and inspiration to transform students who would have been cast off otherwise into scholars. The proof is quite evident. Just look at the long list of accomplished alumni from historically Black colleges who have made their mark on this nation.
It is why Morgan State’s appearance in tonight’s tournament game in Kansas City is so special. It faces a daunting task in taking on Oklahoma but its history overshadows any unfavorable odds. Representing the legacy of Blacks in America, the young men who step on the court tonight will continue a winning tradition of a storied university but even more so embody the excellence of our community. I would be lying if I did not admit that I hope the Bears send the Sooners packing. However, the final score in some respect is inconsequential at this point. What matters most to me is that we are in the house. When television viewers tune in, they will see a historically Black college competing at the highest levels of college athletics; much in the same way Black college alumni compete, every day, in a wide range of endeavors.
When the Morgan Bears take the court tonight, they will represent more than just our school. They will be ambassadors for the nation’s Black colleges. Their “victory” is secured when they step on the court no matter what the scoreboard reads at the end of the game.