In his magisterial study, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, John Hope Franklin noted that among the first things that the newly emancipated slaves focused upon during the Reconstruction Era was building churches and schools.
The churches and their proliferation — especially across the South — were natural outgrowths of what Princeton professor Albert Raboteau has called slave religion. Those churches, and eventually the multiple black denominations spawned by them, were organic expressions of a spiritually-inclined minority of Americans who had challenged the evils of human bondage and won through their faith in deity.
The crop of black schools, especially what we now call Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, came next. There was a veritable proliferation of them across the former slaves states, including colleges like Howard University — from which Vice President Joe Biden’s new running mate emerged three decades ago.
Senator Kamala Harris makes history with her journey from Howard to celebrated status as running mate to a man who would be president. It has never happened before, and is highly symbolic of yet another gradualist stride along the expansive racial spectrum in America.
Howard is a flagship school within the national African American community. Since its inception in the bloody aftermath of the Civil War, Howard has been a fount to which black students, who were intellectually ambitious, would travel to learn and thrive, find their voice and establish their social space. Established in the nation’s capital by the Freedman’s Bureau, Howard would rise and fall over the decades at the will and whim of federal funding or generous philanthropists. Founded in 1887, Howard endures, even as other HBCUs — created for the same reasons of educating former slaves — have floundered.
In choosing Harris this week, Biden called her “a fearless fighter for the little guy, and one of the country’s finest public servants.” The statement could have easily referred to the testy exchanges between them during the democratic presidential primary last year where Harris sought to connect Biden to issues of bias in public education and busing, also accusing him of racial sensitivity and befriending known segregationists in the U.S. Senate during the 1970s.
What’s clear is that the legacy regarding blacks and education in the United States run through Harris’ life like a encompassing theme, beginning during the post Civil Rights era when she, as a pupil, attended the Oakland Public Schools, and then at the majority black Howard and finally onto the stage with Biden and other presidential primary candidates where she turned to her now new running mate to famously say: “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me.”
Harris subsequently asked Biden to apologize for his position around busing and for fraternizing with senate racists. But Biden never did. In fact Biden may have viewed Harris’ aggression as a personal attack. He was recently captured in a photo with notes reminding himself not to “hold grudges” against Harris.
Senator Kamala Harris makes history with her journey from Howard to the celebrated status as running mate to a man who would be president. It has never happened before, and is highly symbolic of yet another gradualist stride along the expansive racial spectrum in America.
No one should be surprised about Harris’ moxie, her tenacity and iconoclast temperament. HBCUs, like Howard, foster attitudes of purposefulness. They are designed to serve as asylums for young blacks who eventually graduate with a sense of intentionality and strong intellectual bearings. They are academic citadels within which a strong sense of culture is nourished through multitudinous networks of black fraternities and sororities, inter-HBCU sports rivalries and lasting acquaintances.
On a surprisingly warm January day in California last January, Harris launched her presidential campaign with words and and convictions assuredly groomed at Howard, saying:
“When white supremacists march and murder in Charlottesville or massacre innocent worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue that’s not our America.
When we have children in cages crying for their mothers and fathers, don’t you dare call it border security, that’s a human rights abuse and that’s not our America. When we have leaders who attack public schools and vilify public school teachers that’s not our America.”
Her focus was on the racism that perdures in America, the pernicious kind of anti-black animus that — a year after she made the speech — would spark the civil unrest in the wake of the George Floyd police murder and the second avalanche of Black Lives Matters protests.
In Ralph Ellison’s monumental book, Invisible Man, the protagonist fulfills his longing desire to attend Tuskegee University, another famous HBCU. The narrative portrays an impressionable young man seeking identity within one of black America’s central institutions where the expansion of his black sensibilities might find their fullest possibility in an otherwise oppressive, totalizing white society.
Howard, as an institution, formed Harris. And now the nation waits to witness her leadership as we venture toward election day on November 4th.