A Recognition of Historically Black Colleges

Academics, lawmakers, parents and students continue to hash out a range of issues facing historically black colleges and universities. Guest Host Tony Cox talks to Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). She's a driving force behind an effort to spotlight the institutions.

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

Today, academics, lawmakers, parents and students are continuing to hash out a range of issues facing Historically Black Colleges and Universities. This as the country recognizes National HBCU Week as proclaimed by President Bush.

A driving force behind the White House initiative has been Democratic Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas. In July, she introduced a resolution to create the week and the House unanimously passed it.

Representative Johnson joins us now via phone from Washington to talk more about National HBCU Week, Congresswoman, nice to have you on the program.

Representative EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON (Democrat, Texas): Well, thank you very much for the invitation.

COX: Let's begin here. Let's talk briefly if we can about the overall state of HBCUs today, surveys - recent surveys, one by Black Enterprise, suggest that they're doing just fine, while the Princeton Review suggests something a little less so. What is the state of HBCUs?

Rep. JOHNSON: Well, HBCUs are still doing a very fine job with the students. They've always had to struggle financially. And I supposed they will always have a struggle financially. But the impact that they have made on society and the kind of contributions they're making by remaining open, even with a struggle, has been incalculable.

COX: There are more than 100 HBCUs in operation today. How are you commemorating them this week?

Rep. JOHNSON: Well, for one thing, we want to call attention to the value that they are. And they have not lost any value. As a matter of fact, they're becoming more and more valuable because we are requiring, or it is necessary, for young people to be more educated. And we still have a large percentage of college graduates coming from the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. So I think that the value of them has grown instead of diminished over the years.

COX: How was the White House addressing these issues this week? And talk about the role the president has played in this initiative.

Rep. JOHNSON: Well, as far as I know the only thing the president has done - he does have a Historically Black College advisory group that comes for - I think this week. If no one else celebrates, I think that we as a people should celebrate it, because we had the most to gain by making sure they remained open.

And this also will be a time of which the persons who did graduate from these Historically Black Colleges can remember that they still need support - that they supported them when they were there, they got what it took for them to be successful in life - and they can give and help some of the other young people coming through.

COX: I'm certain that it comes as no surprise to you that there has been criticism of the president's agenda with regard to education. And talking about…

Rep. JOHNSON: I've been one of them.

COX: Well, my question then, in talking about that, is this week - with regard to the White House, its involvement - is it a well-meaning but simply symbolic gesture without any real substantive support?

Rep. JOHNSON: Well, most things, I think that - with all due respect to the president - just about everything that he's done related to anything related to working people and minorities has been pretty political and symbolic. I have not seen anything really sincere that he has even spoken out for.

COX: On what basis then would you have hope for the future of HBCUs in terms of getting the kind of support politically and financially that they'll need to survive well into the 21st century?

Rep. JOHNSON: Well, I don't know that we can depend on the president, this president in the White House. Hopefully we can get more people that are more sensitive in the Congress. I must say that we have had some pretty good support from the Republicans as well as Democrats, because many of the Republicans are from places where there are Historically Black Colleges and many feel that they still have value. So we've had a fair chance of getting some funding since 1986 when they started to authorize the funding. We've had - not as much as we like - but fair. And we've also got money established for preserving some of the historical structures.

COX: So your sense is that there is a strong future for HBCUs or a questionable one?

Rep. JOHNSON: We'll I think financially, it's still could be rather questionable, unless they really watch those purse strings. However, the value and the need for them remains very strong, so I think maybe based upon that, there can be great appeal for support.

COX: Democratic Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, thank you very much for joining us today.

Rep. JOHNSON: Thank you very much.

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