Harris vice presidency to highlight HBCUs

DOVER — To Jewel Phillips, attending a historically Black college or university was high on the priority list as she began researching higher education.

“I saw the type of talent that comes out of there,” she said. “I wanted to be in a family-style kind of environment when I went to school, and that’s why I chose Delaware State (University).”

Jewel Phillips

Ms. Phillips — who followed in the footsteps of her mother, an alumna of DSU — is a junior at the university, studying communications and being involved on campus through organizations like student government. When Howard University graduate Kamala Harris became the vice president-elect Saturday, Ms. Phillips said the “price of HBCU degrees just went up.”

Kamala Harris

“I feel like for a long time, people would underestimate historically Black colleges, and a lot of times, they would say, ‘Oh, a PWI’ — which is a predominately White institution degree — ‘will get you farther,’” she said. “But it seems like an HBCU degree got someone all the way into the White House.”

The capability of HBCUs to create leaders is “no secret or surprise” for those who are involved with, attend or are alumni of HBCUs, said Carlos Holmes, a spokesman for the university.

“But I don’t know that it’s something that is thoroughly understood by the general public,” he continued. “A lot of HBCUs are well-versed in preparing their students, not just to go out and get a job but to compete on a global level, to compete for leadership jobs.”

He listed those who have gone on from DSU to do just that: Don Blakey, who was the first Black commissioner on Kent County Levy Court and then served as a state representative; Stephanie Bolden, a current state representative; David Turner, a bank executive and former DSU board member; Aaron Spears, an actor; Clyde Bishop, a former U.S. ambassador to the Marshall Islands; and Cathleen Trigg-Jones, an Emmy award winner.

Two DSU alumnae will even be part of Delaware legislature next year. Marie Pinkney, who received her master’s degree in social work from DSU in 2014, unseated incumbent David McBride for his seat in the senate’s 13th district. Sherae’a Moore, who will service the 8th representative district, made history as the first Black woman to be elected to the General Assembly below the canal. She graduated from DSU in 2012 with a bachelor’s in English.

“People like Kamala Harris, and some of the people that I mentioned from DSU, serve to show our students what the possibilities are, that it’s ‘beyond the sky,’ that’s the limit,” Mr. Holmes said. “When you have someone like Vice President-elect Harris, who is able to be on the winning presidential ticket, that shows our students that this is possible for them.”

Ms. Phillips agreed.

“A lot of my peers, we feel really empowered and almost validated to say that our school matters and that we can go anywhere we want to go,” she said.

When Sen. Harris was announced as President-elect Joe Biden’s running mate in August, it was part of the momentum that HBCUs had been gaining, Dr. Donna Patterson, chair for DSU’s Department of History, Political Science and Philosophy and director of Africana studies, said at the time.

She had pointed to the fact that philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated unrestricted funds to HBCUs, including Tuskegee University, Howard University and Spelman College (among numerous other organizations).

“HBCUs — along with local community organizations and groups that focus on race, gender, policy, economic and health equity for all — are key to bridging this divide,” she said at the time, speaking of the increased tension following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “Sen. Harris, as a Howard University grad, helps to illuminate the significance of the long legacy of prominent HBCU alumni. They have contributed widely to the American fabric.”

The Biden-Harris win last week seems like a “really big victory for all underrepresented communities,” including HBCUs, Ms. Phillips said.

While there may be a potential boost from having an HBCU alumna in the White House, Mr. Holmes noted that DSU has already been doing well in student numbers. The university broke enrollment records last year — with 5,054 students, the first year it had exceeded 5,000. The university also stayed above 5,000 this year.

“We just want to continue putting our best academic and institutional foot forward and continuing to seek ways to improve upon what we offer here at Delaware State University, and we’re doing that amid a COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “And we’ll continue doing that whether it’s the best of times or not so best of times. So it’s just a matter of continuing not to rest on our laurels.”

Ms. Phillips noted that it will bring more attention to the work DSU does, along with other HBCUs, especially because Vice President-elect Harris is an Alpha Kappa Alpha sister, part of the “Divine Nine” in the National Pan-Hellenic Council.

“It’s upping the interest in involvement on campus because she was involved with a lot at her school,” she said. “It just brings attention to the work that we do, the community service involvement and different elements to our culture that applies to the real world.”