DETROIT (WXYZ) — Each week this month on 7 Action News, we’re taking an inside look at the impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs.
HBCUs are higher education institutions in the U.S. founded before the Civil Rights Act. They were designed to offer opportunities to Black students where they didn’t exist in segregated white colleges.
Today there are more than 100 HBCUs around the country.
One of the very first was founded before the Civil War; Wilberforce University is about three and half hours south of Detroit in rural Ohio.
“I feel like HBCUs is more of a family thing based off of your history. Not just a family thing based off of who you know," explained student James Ringo.
As president Elfred Anthony Pinkard puts it, when Wilberforce was founded, even the idea many saw as radical.
“That was social disruption. That was audacious," the 22nd president of Wilberforce told Action News.
Wilberforce University was founded in 1856 by members of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church near Tawawa Springs, Ohio. It's named after British abolitionist William Wilberforce.
During the time of it's founding, people of African descent were still enslaved in the American south.
“And yet there were a group of people of good will — both Black people and white people it’s important to note, who imagined a great university occurring in this area. And went about to establish that," Dr. Pinkard said.
The school was forced to close during the Civil War but re-opened in 1863. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was a member of the Wilberforce University board of trustees
Many powerful names have walked the halls at Wilberforce over the years.
Bayard Rustin, civil and gay rights leader and the chief architect of the seminal 1963 March on Washington, D. C. attended Wilberforce in the 1930s.
A few years before that in 1929, celebrated mathematician Dorothy Vaughan graduated from Wilberforce. Vaughn would go on to become a computer specialist with NASA and a subject of a book and movie, “Hidden Figures.”
Another trailblazer Wilberforce helped shape was Violet T. Lewis, who graduated in 1917 and went on to found Michigan's first and only HBCU, the Lewis College of Business. It will re-open in the spring as the Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design.
RELATED: Re-opening Michigan's only HBCU: What Pensole Lewis means for Detroit
For years, Michigan students seeking a traditional HBCU experience ventured out-of-state. Wilberforce and nearby Central State, a public land grant HBCU, are the closest options to metro Detroit.
Of the 540 students enrolled at Wilberforce for the Fall of 2021, 116 are from Michigan; that's more than 20 percent. Of those Michigan students, 57 are from the City of Detroit.
One of those Detroit students is a member of Wilberforce's Royal Court, Rickell Gipson, who was crowned Miss Sophomore.
Gipson was first drawn to Wilberforce when she was in high school; she connected with current students on social media about their experience on-campus.
“Ever since I got here, they’ve literally become my family," she said.
Gipson said she knew right away she wanted the experience of an HBCU over a PWI (Predominantly White Institution) for her college journey.
“The history of them," Gipson said. "I feel like right now with everything going on in the world, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement, it was a major deal for me to go somewhere where my Blackness is celebrated constantly," she said.
Extra curricular activities like the Royal Court are a huge part of the HBCU experience. It's not hard to find viral videos of marching band face-offs or dance team performances. Wilberforce's celebrated marching band will return this August.
There's also a nod to the Divine Nine right on campus at Wilberforce, colors representing the historically African American fraternities and sororities adorn dozens of trees in front of the cafeteria.
But as student body vice president Alexander Murphy points out, a lot of what sets the HBCU experience apart is what happens within the classroom.
"In this country there’s a very historic legacy of putting a certain image out there of Black men and women and that imagine has not always been true. And coming to an HBCU we have been able to see all of these PhDs, all of these Masters degree holders, all of these people who have reached the very top heights of their fields," Murphy, who is also a Bulldog ambassador for the school, continued.
“Being able to communicate and connect and learn from someone who looks like you, that’s completely unmatched. Because it’s a lot deeper that paper, deeper than academics," Murphy, who is also from Detroit, told Action News.
LaDarryl Hardy is student body president at Wilberforce and he too is from metro Detroit.
“PWIS don’t really focus on Black students as much as an HBCU would. The academics we get here, we actually build a relationship with our professors," Hardy said.
According to National Center for Education Statistics, although HBCUs were originally founded to educate Black students, enrollment for students of other races is increasing. In 2019 non-Black students made up 24 percent of enrollment at HBCUs nationwide, compared to 15 percent in 1976.
When it comes to Wilberforce's future programs, dean for the College of Professional Studies Dr. Dwobeng Owusu-Nyamekye is on a mission to bring more industry knowledge into the classroom.
He's working to create a "micro-credentialing" program at Wilberforce to allow for sub-concentrations or for non-traditional students to add to their prior work experience without spending hours in the classroom.
“You are differentiating yourself from the competition," he said.
And being in rural Ohio, Dr. Owusu-Nyamekye is also eyeing expanding agro-business opportunities for students.
A common theme is cooperative education; working with companies to help train students and give them real-world industry experience.
“You want people to be ready for the job market. And if they are not ready, some other people are ready," Owusu-Nyamekye said.
So far Wilberforce has partnerships with companies/agencies such as CompTech, Premier Health, Penn National Gaming, and FEMA.
As for selling Wilberforce to prospective students, he echoed what a lot of the students themselves said. "It’s a small campus, it’s like a family business. Everybody knows everybody," he told Action News.
Sadly this month, more than a dozen HBCUs around the country have received bomb threats. The FBI is investigating the threats as possible hate crimes but so far there have been no arrests.
“Honestly not really surprised that it’s still going on," said Wilberforce student Honesty Lyon.
“In the month of February, we get the attention of bomb threats out of nowhere. I find that very interesting," James Ringo told Action News.
Dr. Pinkard wasn't surprised either. He sent out a memo to campus after news of the threats. Thankfully, Wilberforce has not been targeted.
“I said to our students I want you to first of all continue to be vigilant. If you see something, say something. But I also reminded them that as a people we have always been under siege. This has been part of our collective experience here in America," Dr. Pinkard said.
“And I have also reminded them that we have always overcome.”