America’s once-favorite dad was on the line. It was an early weekday morning. “It’s the Bill Cosby machine,” the comedian announced. “Wake up, man! I wanna talk about these colleges.”
It’s tough to remember now, but there was a time when Bill Cosby seemed next in line to be carved into Mount Rushmore. He was so big, so pioneering, so damn likable that even black folks were willing, for the most part, to forgive what had become an embarrassing tic of sorts; a kind of media-induced Tourette’s in which Cosby, often unprovoked, would take the stage and rant endlessly on modern black life in America—witty if not misguided assaults on everything from irresponsible black teen mothers, to gun-toting gangsta youth, to hyperethnic, hard-to-pronounce black birth names.
More recently, though, what has become painfully apparent, too, is the extent to which Bill Cosby, in these artful soliloquies, has skirted his own personal failings, foibles, and perhaps even criminal proclivities; which, no less, include an ever-growing list of women alleging that, starting as far back as the early 1970s, Cosby drugged and raped them. While Cosby has denied or declined to address the various allegations, and even his own 2005 court deposition in which he admitted drugging a woman with Quaaludes for sex, his many accusers recount incidents of sexual assault and abuse that contradict everything we had imagined about him.
And yet in the perennially fragile world of HBCUs, where good press and large dollars remain in short supply, Bill Cosby’s fall from grace represents something close to an apocalypse. The black college doomsayer searching for a sign of imminent extinction can only relish the woes of Bill Cosby. However, few figures living or dead can boast the impact that Cosby has wielded across the black higher education landscape, whether it was the millions of dollars he gifted schools from his own pocket, or the millions he helped raise hosting HBCU fund-raisers, or the credibility he gave the institutions by simply sporting a black college sweatshirt through an airport.
Admittedly, there has been some suspicion about his agenda, an unsettling sense that maybe the man had become too rich, powerful, and detached to empathize and comment credibly on modern black life and its struggles. The fact that most had grown up in households that revered Bill Cosby as an entertainer, family man, and black citizen of the world started to become less relevant than his cultural shape-shifting; that the Jell-O pudding man, before our eyes, had morphed into the grumpy old sage and scold of black America. Like those kids on his ’90s TV show, Bill was suddenly saying the darndest things. “What part of Africa did this come from? We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans; they don’t know a thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Taliqua, and Mohammed and all of that crap, and all of them are in jail.”
Yet as unsettling as Cosby’s transformation was to watch, Cosby’s views on black people, and especially young black people, have undeniably shaped popular black identity. Fat Albert, Claire Huxtable, and even Little Bill are like bells in the black subconscious that cannot be unrung; not any more than yanking down the six Chicago Bulls championship banners from the United Center would erase from a hoop fan’s memory Michael Jordan’s soaring dunks. Even amid the scandals, it’s unlikely that a generation of black folks can—or are even willing to—let go of their fond recollections of A Different World, that funny, socially conscious ’80s sitcom set in fictitious Hillman College, Cosby’s paean to black college life. The trials of Whitley Gilbert and Dwayne Wayne did more to attract black college kids to black campuses than those “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” public service announcements ever could.
On this morning, Cosby was, surprisingly, focused in his sermonizing, explaining that he had phoned because of his concern for his friend Renee Higginbotham-Brooks, the controversial trustee at Howard University—“it’s like a lynching” is how he put it. What was happening to Higginbotham-Brooks, he said, typified the malady afflicting HBCUs generally; a corrosion of goodwill and moral ethics among their leaders. These leaders had become a blight on institutions that represent more than a source of academic degrees for blacks—the institutions hold a kind of psychic power as well, the ability to inspire a kid out of abject poverty and into the top echelons of business, government, or entertainment. As leading cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic: “Howard has a way of inculcating its students with a sense of mission. If you are going into writing, you understand that you are not a free agent, but the bearer of heritage walking in the steps of Hurston, Morrison, Baldwin, Wright, and Ellison. None of these writers appear in Insurrections of the Mind. Howard University taught me to be unsurprised by this. It also taught me that writing was war. . . . When The Bell Curve excerpt was published, one of my professors handed out the issue to every interested student. This was not a compliment. This was knowing your enemy.”
The result, in most cases, is also transcendent. “There is pride in education,” Cosby said. “The feeling I get watching young people walk across that stage. I don’t care if it’s community college, high school, or what. There’s a sameness in having achieved and conquered those academics.” It is a refrain trumpeted among star HBCU graduates, whether it’s Common, the actor and rapper (Florida A&M University), singer-songwriter Erykah Badu (Grambling State University), or actress Taraji P. Henson (Howard University).
Cosby boasts an arsenal of anecdotes and tall tales meant to inspire black higher learning. Many are brief and endearing, like the time he was walking through an airport and a black man, about forty, came rushing up to him. The guy, despite being loaded down by luggage, was eager to deliver a message to Cosby, to express to him how much he appreciated what Cosby was saying about the importance of earning a college education. He stood there proudly, a former college football player, now working as a businessman, as living proof of the value of education. “I asked, ‘You’re happy?’ And he said, ‘Yessir!’ That’s education!”
Cosby has always backed up his talk with cash. In 1988, for instance, he and wife Camille gifted Spelman College with $20 million, the largest donation to a college or university by African Americans and the second largest made to an HBCU. At the time, the gift represented roughly 50 percent of Spelman’s endowment. What’s remarkable about the Cosbys’ gift is that neither attended an HBCU. Cosby himself boasts an undergraduate degree from Temple and a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Perhaps even more than HBCU alum, the Cosbys have proven to value the critical mission of building institutions of higher learning that afford black people access to worlds of opportunity historically shut off to them. Their gift essentially represented a kind of clarion call to other affluent blacks to address the funding challenges of black colleges and inspire all African Americans to value and support their institutions. For all its social idealism, racial desegregation brought with it the unfortunate by-product of plucking black enterprises of their talent and resources. As black customers flocked to partake in the once racially restricted white-owned establishments, black commerce and culture suffered; thriving black commercial districts in cities such as Tulsa, Atlanta, Durham, and Savannah dried up; middle-class resort communities such as Idlewild, Michigan, and Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard struggled to stay alive. At black colleges, a tide of declining black enrollment, along with budget cuts from the federal and state governments and waning private donations, began washing away decades of gains.
Indeed, as far back as the ’60s, Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael had warned about the paradox of desegregation, the dangerous complacency borne from a false sense of inclusion. “We cannot afford to be concerned about the six percent of black children in this country whom you allow to enter white schools. We are going to be concerned about the ninety-four percent.” Racial integration policies led to a gradual neglect of the very institutions that prepared blacks to attend traditionally white schools. Some have posited that the decline of black colleges is a testament to the success of American integration, but this argument starts to fall apart under the statistical reality that the majority of the nation’s elementary and secondary public school districts are increasingly segregated along racial lines.
The reality is that America’s black students still rely largely on black colleges for attaining advanced degrees, and most of these institutions, unfortunately, are in various stages of disarray—and in Cosby’s view, their fall is nothing less than tragic. A higher ed scholar of sorts, Cosby talks a blue streak about the history of black colleges; how prior to the Civil War, blacks were prohibited by law from learning to read and write (the exceptions were Oberlin College in Ohio and Bowdoin College in Maine). How the turning point came in the middle and later decades of the 1800s when abolitionists, missionaries, and liberal philanthropists began setting up churches and schools that would educate former slaves and their children. “When you go back to when these schools started, they were called normal schools,” Cosby likes to lecture, referring to early institutions established to train high school graduates on the norms and standards to become teachers. “The history tells you there were four corners and in the center, a dirt floor.”
Cheyney, Lincoln, and Wilberforce universities came first, followed by some two hundred more before the turn of the century—generally governed and staffed by whites. The schools gained momentum throughout the South as amendments to state laws that required educating former slaves, and other laws such as the Second Morrill Act of 1890, or the Land-Grant College Act, provided federal support for state education of agriculture, education, and military sciences to blacks.
Black college towns were typically sleepy enclaves steeped in the pride of moving up the nation’s social and economic ladder, albeit one that was racially segregated. Students, drilled on the refinements of proper speech and dress, wore a badge of honor among the town’s blue-collar locals, while faculty enjoyed an elite status in the realm of preachers and business owners. “You see, education is the primary part of surviving,” Cosby said. “In any place, and any person, whether you are brought to a strange area or you came on your own, you’ve got to become acclimated—and education is the key to that.”
The real heroes were those early teachers, white and black alike, who sparked the imaginations of African American students, and groomed them to become scientists, physicians, engineers, artists, musicians, teachers, and ministers. Cosby praised them not only for their ability to recast mind-sets more accustomed to field work, but also for their commitment to doing so against the hard, oftentimes violent, resistance of white oppressors. “All hell was being raised from racists to keep them from teaching. But they continued on,” Cosby said. “These were real civil rights fighters because they made sure that these young people had the knowledge that they needed to have. If you wanted it, they would give it to you—above and beyond.”
This isolated yet aspirational culture thrived until 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against “separate but equal” school systems in Brown v. Board of Education. The landmark decision opened the floodgates for blacks to attend nonblack schools, weakening HBCUs’ stronghold on black higher education, values, and culture. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that HBCUs today award about 16 percent of bachelor’s degrees to black students compared to 35 percent in 1976.
The problems these days transcend declining enrollment. The challenges are unfortunately more systemic, and can be laid mostly at the feet of leadership; whether it is personal greed and financial malfeasance, inept management, or overall disengagement from the needs of students and faculty. Cosby could cite a litany of examples, from Alabama A&M University, to Wilberforce University, to Texas Southern University.
Among the most recent HBCU collapses was Morris Brown College in Atlanta, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012 to stave off creditors holding $13 million in bonds and threatening to foreclose on the property. Founded in 1881 by members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Morris Brown was once known for successfully educating the poorest black students and sending them back to their hometowns as teachers. In recent years, the university has mostly stumbled: from its peak of three thousand students, Morris Brown’s enrollment over the decades had plummeted to below forty, its football stadium and most of its buildings shuttered. The problems began back in 2002, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools withdrew the university’s accreditation, citing gross financial mismanagement. The penalty came on the heels of two of its former administrators pleading guilty to embezzling federal student aid money in a kind of rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul scheme to fund the university’s basic operating expenses.
“If you’re black, there’s an understanding, or used to be, that you’re going to protect your black brother and your black sister,” Cosby said. “We tend to think, if we get somebody black in there, we can trust that person. But that’s not true. You’ve got black people putting their hands in the till, misappropriating where they’re supposed to be spending the money. And in college education, one of the greatest things that we do! There’s the duplicity; why are we attacking our own people? It’s duplicitous. It’s an attack on black people.”
Cosby was standing on his old proverbial soapbox now. Extending his duplicity theme, he shared a story, a recollection from some town hall meeting he had recently attended. At the event, he said, an elderly black man rose in the audience and began talking about how white people have always thwarted the opportunities for black people to advance in life. The man, who hailed from a small town in Louisiana, spun a captivating yarn about racial segregation in his hometown, and the indignities he had suffered as a child growing up there. His words, spoken in an old-timer’s southern drawl, connected with the crowd, and soon folks were clapping and coaxing him on. “He says there are small dirt roads that lead into downtown, where everything was white-owned. They own the theaters and they own the benches. And he says there was a grass area downtown and there were two fountains; there was a white fountain, which was polished and had flowers growing around it and it was clean. And you walked up to it and you turned on the spigot, and the water came out nice and smooth.”
Cosby, pausing a moment for dramatic effect, then went on. “He said, ‘Then I went over to the fountain marked colored and the pipes were all rusty.’ And everybody said, ‘Yeah!’ And the man said, ‘There was trash all around it, and the grass was full of weeds. And the poor little colored children would come up to the fountain and they didn’t know which way the water was going to come out. It would shoot up their nose, in their face.’ And everybody sort of nodded, like ‘Well, that’s the way it is.’ ”
Cosby, though, said he was frustrated by the man’s tale, and even more so by the crowd’s response to it. Why, he wondered, didn’t the black town folk take matters into their own hands? He had been preparing to speak to the crowd about the proud legacy of civil rights leaders, of the importance of boycotts and marches and organized action to shift social paradigms. But after the man’s story, he was compelled to ask a question: “I said, about these two fountains, ‘The white man’s fountain is clear and clean. Yours is filthy. Why didn’t you clean up your own fountain?’ And everybody laughed when I said this, but I was serious. I said, ‘Where is it in our minds, where you think that is the end of something? Where is the message in that? We’re talking about our schoolchildren not getting the kind of teaching they should . . . all these things you’re talking about that people don’t have, that they should have, and yet you’re sitting here in this room having this meeting.’ I said, ‘Get up!’ And everybody just kind of stared at me. Nobody stood up and shouted, ‘Yeah, that’s right!’ But they sure shouted about those two fountains.”
There are, unfortunately, examples of African American universities not being trusted to properly tend our own. Consider the strange case of Hattie McDaniel’s missing Academy Award, the first-ever Oscar awarded to an African American. Some time after McDaniel won the Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the slave servant Mammy in Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s epic Civil War novel, she donated the award—a stone-mounted, five-by-six-inch plaque (the statuettes would come later)—to Howard University. It’s unclear when exactly the Wichita, Kansas, native donated the award; her biographer Carlton Jackson has said that it was toward the end of her life, as she was dying of breast cancer and began gifting valuable possessions from her estate. More recent research by W. Burlette Carter, a law professor at George Washington University, suggests that the Oscar, after spending years in McDaniel’s home, was likely given to Howard by one of McDaniel’s close friends, fellow actor and Howard alumnus Leigh Whipper, founder of the Negro Actors Guild, who had amassed an impressive collection of black entertainment memorabilia. What’s less debated is that the Oscar was last seen on display in Howard University’s fine arts complex before, at some point in the late 1960s, it disappeared.
That McDaniel’s achievement was not universally embraced among blacks only compounds the mystery. Back then, African American entertainers were relegated to playing mostly the lazy simpleton and obsequious servant, and actors willing to compromise their dignity to accept such roles risked being frowned upon. This fact, more than forty years later, has led to the larger question for Howard of whether McDaniel’s award was stolen or simply misplaced. Some have theorized that a group of Howard students, caught up in the fervor of the racially charged 1960s and offended by McDaniel’s win for playing the racially stereotypical role, stole the Oscar and tossed it into the Potomac River. But in her research, Professor Carter has come to regard the ’60s social protest theft as little more than urban myth; she says the Oscar likely disappeared from the Howard drama department’s glass encasement in the early ’70s as new faculty were transitioning in and reorganizing the drama department, and perhaps not recognizing McDaniel’s plaque as an Oscar, tucked it away somewhere obscure where it still sits out of public view, collecting dust.
Whatever happened to Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar, the shameful tale tends to resurface whenever Howard is angling to house culturally important works. The most recent instance came when the university’s famed alumnus and former faculty member Toni Morrison decided to donate her papers to Princeton University, where she has served as a faculty member for nearly three decades. The move sparked considerable outrage because Howard is considered to be a primary catalyst behind Morrison’s illustrious literary career; the place that not only afforded her the opportunity to interact with such brilliant thinkers as Stokely Carmichael, a student of hers, but also where she began penning her first novel, The Bluest Eye.
Instead of Howard, Cosby pointed to a squandered cultural gold mine at Fisk University to make his point. Fisk, which sits on forty acres in Nashville, Tennessee, was founded in 1866 and counts among its graduates W. E. B. Du Bois, U.S. congressman John Lewis, and Nikki Giovanni. “How can Fisk not realize what they had in the art that was given to them? How can you waste these things?”
The art controversy at Fisk, which ended up in a rather byzantine, highly publicized legal dispute, actually boiled down to a fight over the cash-strapped university’s right to keep its doors open by selling off a donated art collection. Back in the late 1940s, Georgia O’Keeffe donated her art collection in honor of her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer, art dealer, and studio owner. Housed in the Carl Van Vechten Gallery, the oldest of two art galleries on the university’s campus, the collection was donated to recognize the mission of the HBCU and included O’Keeffe’s own iconic painting Radiator Building—Night, New York. In all, O’Keeffe donated over one hundred pieces, including work by Picasso, Diego Rivera, and Renoir.
But O’Keeffe’s collection, which was appraised as half of the university’s total assets, was bound to Fisk by the stipulation that it was not to be separated or sold. Based on that stipulation, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the state of Tennessee’s attorney general pushed to block the sale. In the end, the Tennessee Supreme Court decided to allow Fisk to sell a 50 percent stake to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, which was founded in 2011 by Walmart heiress Alice Walton. In the agreement, Fisk compromised its right to permanently display the collection; the university can show it two out of every four years instead. Alice Walton also pledged $1 million to spruce up Fisk’s display facilities after the university complained it lacked the funds to properly showcase the artwork. The deal was bittersweet; for selling off half of perhaps its most prestigious asset, Fisk took in a much-needed $30 million to fund its core operations.
In fairness, HBCUs were not alone in their woes. More than a century old, Sweet Briar College, a majority white, all-girls liberal arts school in the hills of central Virginia, announced it was shutting down, despite its $85 million endowment. With only seven hundred students, the board caved to looming pressures, from surging financial aid costs to campus maintenance, an overall tab of roughly $250 million to stay afloat. “I think the whole of American higher education is on the cusp of a state of flux that we have never seen, ever,” said Jimmy Jones, Sweet Briar’s president.
American universities were suffering across the board, and questions over whether a college education was even worth the money these days were becoming a common refrain. Overwhelmingly, Americans were getting weary of the increasing cost of college, which since the late ’70s had soared 1,120 percent. That meant ponying up an average of $15,000 per year for a public college, and nearly $33,000 for a private college, according to a Pew study. As the study put it: “a child born today will need $41,000 a year for public college and $93,000 a year for private college at the current rate of growth.”
Employers, too, were losing confidence. No matter the degree, college graduates these days often lacked the skills and preparation needed to be successful on the job. According to McKinsey & Company, less than 50 percent of the nation’s employers considered the recent grads they hired to be prepared. These days, American colleges are not only scrambling to figure out how to survive, but how to graduate students who bring value to the workforce. Gone are those heady days after World War II when the millions of returning GIs on federally subsidized educations breathed new life into the nation’s middle class. While the best students are still clawing their way into Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and other elite schools, most students wind up at colleges struggling against skyrocketing costs and declining quality. Just over half of these will actually graduate, putting the United States, along with Italy, at the bottom of the barrel of wealthy countries. Experts predict that once the baby boomer generation retires, the generations that follow will be less educated than their predecessors for the first time ever.
Cosby’s crusade, though, was focused especially on HBCUs, which served the novel purpose of educating first-generation black college students—and the institutions’ slow death was hurting him at his core. He ended his rant by telling me yet another story.
“I saw the answer,” he said. “It was in a prizefight. It was a black kid fighting a Dominican kid. The Dominican kid had a left hook, and this black kid was boxing and moving in and out. He won the first six rounds. Then all of a sudden, in the seventh round, the black kid figured he was going to end it all with a knockout. Instead, he got caught with a left hook. And that started a whole two minutes of him grabbing the ropes, spinning backwards, looking like Charlie Chaplin. Finally, the bell rang and he sat down in his corner and his manager, who was also black, looked at him and said, ‘Don’t do that. Go back to your sticking and moving.’ But this kid, heck, I don’t know what he was thinking. You can’t be sure of what he was thinking because he had just gotten hit in the head.”
Cosby chuckled at the memory. “Anyway, black kid goes back out there and tries to knock the guy out again. But he got caught in the head again, and now’s he’s just sloppy. He kept falling, getting up, falling, and getting up. When the bell rings, he comes back to his corner and he sits down and the guy threw a handful of water from the sponge on his face and he said this, and to me this is as clear as a bell: ‘It’s not what he’s doing to you; it’s what you’re not doing!’”
Cosby paused, and when he spoke again he sounded weary. “Look,” he said. “Pay those professors. Give the students those scholarships, and put Howard in a position to have educated strong people. Put that hospital in a position so that we can, like Jews, have these shining examples of what we can do in medicine and in research. Not in driving all the way to New York City to have board meetings, charge it to the school, and come back. It is not only ridiculous, but it’s accepted and it’s duplicitous. And these people know they are guilty of it. They are making a fool and mockery of our schools, and so are the people standing by and letting it happen.”
Excerpted from "Where Everybody Looks Like Me: At the Crossroads of America's Black Colleges and Culture" by Ron Stodghill. Published by Amistad, a division of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2015 by Ron Stodghill. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.