Until a few weeks ago, Katelyn Urias, 17, had never considered going to a historically Black college and knew very little about them.
"I never thought about it because I thought it would be weird being a Latina and going to a historically Black college," she said.
But after meeting in October with officials from Memphis, Tennessee’s LeMoyne-Owen College who paid a visit to Wyandanch Memorial High School, she learned that its student body is much like her own, a mix of largely Black and Latino students. She then received an on-site acceptance from the college and an offer of a scholarship toward tuition, which is almost $11,000 a year according to the school’s website.
The visit from LeMoyne-Owen is one of recent attempts by Long Island school districts and community organizations to give students an option that many like Urias had not known about or considered: Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs.
HBCUs are still somewhat of a mystery to many on Long Island and in the Northeast. Formed after the Civil War and largely in the South, HBCUs were often the only way Black students could receive a college education. While there are currently more than 100 such schools in the United States, none is in the tristate area.
The closest HBCUs to Long Island are Delaware State University in Dover, and Cheyney University and Lincoln University, both in Pennsylvania.
And, with the exception of schools such as Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Morehouse College and Spelman College in Atlanta, several of them have little name recognition for many Long Islanders.
Connecting students to HBCUs
Those who have heard of HBCUs can sometimes assume they comprise only Black students, even though the schools accept all ethnicities. In 2019, non-Black students accounted for 24% of enrollment at HBCUs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington, D.C.
"A lot of people, when they hear ‘historically Black,’ don’t hear anything beyond Black," said Gerald Tootle, 75, of Freeport. As a member of the Black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha’s Eta Theta Lambda chapter, he helps organize tours to HBCUs.
Long Island districts in predominantly minority communities often have a history of trying to connect students to HBCUs.
Uniondale Superintendent Monique Darrisaw-Akil said her district highlights HBCUs in numerous ways, including having alumni from those colleges set up booths at homecoming and holding an HBCU parent workshop. She said they also hope to launch an HBCU tour in February.
"We want our students to know what all of their options are, from primarily white institutions, trade schools, two-year colleges," she said. "But we also know that for communities of color . . . we want them to know that this is a really viable option."
For Black and Latino students, being at an HBCU can allow them to have a shared cultural experience, alleviating at least some of the stress that comes with navigating life away from home for the first time, Darrisaw-Akil said.
'A lot of students like the idea of being in a culturally-affirming safe space.'Uniondale Superintendent Monique Darrisaw-Akil
"Going to college can be a very challenging experience, particularly if you’re first-generation and leaving your family," she said. "I think a lot of students like the idea of being in a culturally-affirming safe space, where you don’t have to explain that you like plátanos [plantains] or where to get good hair products."
Wyandanch High School guidance counselor Dexter Ward said the school started making an increased effort to connect students to HBCUs in April by bringing in Tony A. Baldwin, who at the time was working for Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, but is now at LeMoyne-Owen College. That visit from Baldwin resulted in two Wyandanch students going to Livingstone, said school counselor Tiffany Kee. When Baldwin came back in October with the president and provost of LeMoyne-Owen, 17 students were offered acceptance on-site. His visit to Amityville days later resulted in all 35 students who applied being accepted, Baldwin said.
Ward said there is an increased interest by HBCUs to visit, with Virginia Union University in Virginia and Wilberforce University in Ohio due to come next.
Hempstead has also been making a concerted effort to connect students with HBCUs the past few years.
Hempstead senior Maralena McGowan, 17, who identifies as African-American, said she has applied to Morgan State University in Baltimore and plans to apply to other historically Black colleges.
"There’s a lot of minorities, there’s a lot of opportunities, and there’s also a lot of clubs I could be involved with, so I feel the best place for me to be is an HBCU," she said.
Helping provide a fuller school search
Because many school districts don’t promote HBCUs and some guidance counselors are not even familiar with them, community members and Black fraternity and sorority chapters on Long Island have taken up the call, organizing HBCU fairs and campus tours.
Reynolds Hawkins, 61, is a retired social worker for the Amityville School District who remains its track and field coach. He said he began to see that students were being guided toward large schools upstate and ended up not doing well. He wanted students to know they had other options and organized a tour of HBCUs that is now in its 13th year.
"Not to say you have to go to an HBCU, but just become aware of them when you’re doing your school search," he said.
'It was a very nurturing environment.'Alijah Benymon, 22, of Amityville, who attended Virginia State University
Alijah Benymon, 22, of Amityville, said that even though he grew up in a Black community he "didn’t know what HBCUs were about at all" until he took Hawkins’ tour. He ended up attending Virginia State University and graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and technology. He said having gone to high school with only "two or three minority teachers in the whole building," he found it refreshing to have Black professors whom he would more easily relate to on different levels.
"It was a very nurturing environment," Benymon said.
Baldwin, special assistant to the president of LeMoyne-Owen, said many HBCUs are making more of a push to attract students from the Northeast, including Long Island.
"I’m a firm believer that if you’re on one side of the boat and you don’t catch any fish, throw a net over the other side," he said.
Baldwin, who received his undergraduate and graduate degrees at an HBCU, said he targeted Wyandanch and Amityville because there are students there who remind him of himself — students who might not be at the top of the class but have potential to thrive in college.
"Not everybody gave me a second chance or believed that I could do better," he said. "I think many of the kids in this area, if just given an opportunity to get away from the environment that they’re in, to showcase what they really can do, can make a difference."
While the pandemic has limited college fairs and caused tours to largely go virtual, HBCU advocates said they will continue to try to provide information on those institutions to local high schoolers.
"You need to go to a school that best fits your needs," Tootle said. "It might be a historically Black college, it might not. But how do you know what’s best for you if you don’t know anything about them?"
Check them out
There are more than 100 HBCUs — Historically Black Colleges and Universities — in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education. For a state-by-state list, go to https://sites.ed.gov/whhbcu
Source: U.S. Department of Education