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  • U.S. Department of State Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter, an alumna of prominent HBCU, Howard University, moderates a conversation with Dr. Harry Williams, President and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, who provides an overview of the role of HBCUs in U.S. higher education. Dr. Williams discusses the history of HBCUs—which has earned renewed attention due to the election of Vice President Kamala Harris, an alumna of an HBCU, Howard University— as well as how the TMCF partners with HBCUs to advance racial equity in higher education with regard to access and funding. The briefing is part of the Foreign Press Centers’ Understanding America Series, which informs foreign press about U.S. history, society, culture, and values.


MODERATOR: Good morning, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center’s briefing on “The History and Role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in U. S. Higher Education, ” the latest entry in the FPC’s Understanding America series. My name is Liz Detmeister. I am the director of the Foreign Press Centers and today’s moderator.

Before we get started, I’d like to go over the ground rules. This event is on the record. The views expressed by briefers not affiliated with the Department of State or U. S. Government are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U. S. Government. Participation in Foreign Press Center programming does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of their views. We will post the transcript of this briefing later today on the FPC website, fpc. state. gov.

Today’s briefer is Dr. Harry Williams, President and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, who is also a former president of an HBCU, Delaware State University. Dr. Williams will provide an overview of the history of HBCUs in America, as well as how the TMCF partners with HBCUs to advance racial equity with regard to access and funding. On behalf of the Foreign Press Centers, I would like to thank our briefer for giving his time today to speak with the foreign press.

We’re also delighted to welcome Department of State Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter today, who will serve as co-moderator for today’s briefing. We’ll begin with remarks by Deputy Spokesperson Porter, who has a personal connection with this topic as an HBCU alumna, and after a moderated conversation between Ms. Porter and Dr. Williams, we will open the floor up to Q&A with the journalists.

And now, over to you, Principal Deputy Spokesperson Porter.

MS PORTER: Thank you, Liz. I’m pleased to be here with the Foreign Press Center and to meet all of you virtually today. I hope to eventually meet many of you in person as vaccine distribution increases and the pandemic situation improves.

I’ve been looking forward to engaging with the Foreign Press Center, as your work to promote access to authoritative sources on U. S. policy, society, culture, and values, is so important to the United States’s commitment to the freedom of the press. With disinformation on the rise, journalists’ role in countering misperceptions and fact-checking has never been more critical – and essential to the function of a healthy democracy. This administration has pledged to have an open, transparent, and respectful relationship with the press, and I will reiterate that commitment with you all here today.

On a personal level, I’m so excited to join today’s event. Historically black colleges and universities represent an important and unique part of the U. S. higher education system, and as a graduate of Howard University – an HBCU – I can attest to the great influence my Howard education has had on my professional development, worldview, and my stature as a leader and trailblazer as the first African American woman principal deputy spokesperson in the history of the State Department. It was during my time at Howard University that introduced me to the world of diplomacy and planted important seeds about the need to engage meaningfully with global partners.

The Biden-Harris administration has also put advancing racial equity at the top of our foreign policy goals. The focus today on giving the foreign press greater insight into the role of HBCUs in America serves to underscore President Biden’s bedrock principle that diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths, and to raise international awareness of these advantages these schools offer.

I am so pleased to be here with Dr. Williams. With that, I will pass it to you, sir, and I look forward to your remarks.

MR WILLIAMS:  Thank you. Thank you, Ms. Porter. I am so proud of the fact that you are moderating this today, and to be a proud HBCU graduate. It means a lot to our community, and congratulations to you on this amazing accomplishment – and more to come, I know. This is just the beginning for you here.

I am delighted to be a part of this program and to have an opportunity to engage the foreign press today, and to maybe share some information about the history of historically black colleges and universities in this country, and to give some insight as it relates to the purpose of these institutions and why they were created. My goal here today is to, again, shed a positive light on a lot of the amazing development that has happened here recently in terms of – that has brought a lot of attention to historically black colleges and universities.

But before I do that, I would like to give a quick overview of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the purpose of this organization, and when it was created, and why it was created. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund was created in 1987. Our founder, N. Joyce Payne, Dr. N. Joyce Payne, actually had a meeting with the first African America Supreme Court justice and proud Howard Law graduate Justice Thurgood Marshall. Justice Thurgood Marshall legacy lives on in the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. He was known as “Mr. Civil Rights” – a person who dedicated his life to getting up every single day and fighting inequities that exist, more specifically inequity that impacts African Americans in this country. And to have this organization to be named after the great – one of the greatest Supreme Court justices to ever live on this planet is an honor, and to have his legacy to continue is also an honor.

When our founder met with Justice Marshall, she asked him if he would lend his name, and he said, “Why, why should I do this? ” And she reminded him that he graduated from the first historically black college and university in the country for public HBCUs that granted a four-year degree, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, number one in his class there, and then she reminded him that he went to Howard, and that he exemplified the quality that exists on our campus, and he was – would be an incredible role model for our students. And he did not hesitate after that, and he has given us the rights and privileges to use his name to raise funds to support students attending historically black colleges and universities. And those funds, we use to help students so they persist towards graduation.

Our students still have challenges, and it’s not academic challenges, it’s financial challenges. So this fund was created with that purpose, so that these students will have an opportunity to engage and to participate in the way middle-class Americans participate in the quality of – we’d call it quality of life here in this country. So by creating this fund, it provided that opportunity, and 34 years later, we’ve been able to raise close to a half a billion dollars to support our students attending these institutions.

So I just thought it would be important to start out with that to kind of give the press a clear example of why this organization was created, and the purpose of it.

MS PORTER: Well, thank you for those remarks. And to actually just piggyback on something you said about Lincoln University, I wanted to draw a quick connection to an ambassador that I’ve long admired, who is Ambassador Franklin H. Williams, who was also a premier at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, as well as an ambassador here at the Department of State, and graduate of Lincoln University, an HBCU.

Before we open up the floor to journalists, I’d like to ask you a few questions, if I may.


MS PORTER: So let’s start off with the history of HBCUs in America. When and where were they founded?

MR WILLIAMS:  Yeah, that’s a very good question; I’m glad you posed that. HBCUs were created mainly because African Americans did not have the right to receive an education. The actual oldest HBCU now – I mentioned Lincoln University, in 1854 – but the oldest one, the first one was Cheyney University in Cheyney, Pennsylvania in 1837. And that was the first one to provide, but it was moreso in a high school structure, so you can get a high school degree. And later on, it became a four-year institution, but Cheyney was actually the very first, and my friends at Lincoln would argue that in terms of who was the first. But the four-year was Lincoln University. The first private HBCU was Wilberforce; that was in 1856 in Ohio.

And those three institutions were created in northern states and mainly because there are a little bit more opportunities in northern states, if you notice the year. Slavery was still in existence in 1837, still in existence in 1854 and 1856. And it did not end until after the end of the Civil War in 1865. So northerners actually started historically black colleges and universities, but after the end of the Civil War, there was a federal designation, federal program called the Freedmen’s Bureau that – it was a federal program that provided funding. So the majority of the historically black colleges and universities were created after 1865, and 90 percent of those were in southern states in the southern part of the United States of America, with the sole purpose of educating blacks. And African Americans still did not have the right to attend a historically white institution. It was Thurgood Marshall who argued Brown versus the Board of Education to desegregate education in general that – when that started changing in this country.

So HBCUs have been around for over 150 years. They have, without HBCU – this is the point that I would like to make: Without HBCUs there would not be a black middle class as we know it today. HBCUs produced and continue to produce doctors, lawyers, all the professional classes, teachers, educators, nurses, you name it. They were created on – started because of historically black colleges and universities. So we only represent about less than 3 percent of colleges and universities in the country, but the impact is significant in terms of what we have done in America.

MS PORTER: I have two questions, because you raise so many important details about the history. You mentioned Lincoln University, the Black middle class, and democracy in America. So tell us why HBCUs play an important role in America today.

MR WILLIAMS:  Yeah, I think that the role that HBCUs continue to play – first of all, we serve a population of students that’s still in a large sense the first in their family to go to college. We still serve a large percentage of students who have financial challenges or come from – still come from communities that have inequities. This pandemic that we have – we’re going through right now and the social unrest that’s taken place in our country right now actually has put a spotlight on the inequities that exist within the African American community. And it’s been very clear that the health disparities, the educational disparities, all that was – put a spotlight on historically black colleges and universities, and this country had to deal with this.

And they have responded in a very positive way in terms of corporate America, in terms of federal government, and providing additional resources to support these institutions in a way that that they have never been supported from that perspective. And HBCU graduates – they are in – the members of Congress. I know you’ve worked for one, member – former Congressman Cedric Richmond, Morehouse graduate, now senior policy analyst for – advisor for our current President, President Biden, someone who strongly advocate for HBCUs in a way that we have never had this type of advocacy from this perspective that – and it put this spotlight.

And we all know the wonderful news of Howard grad Vice President Kamala Harris and her – when she – actually, when she was running for the presidency, she made her announcement that she was going to run for the president, and – the presidency – and then the next meeting was on the campus of Howard University. The reason why I know that is because my son was there at a basketball game, and she walked in with the president of the university. So that right there just elevated historically black colleges and universities to a – in a spotlight that we’ve never had.

We’ve always known that these institutions are powerful, these institutions have played a critical role in shaping America in a way – in a positive and very strategic way. But now the spotlight is on us, and now in the spotlight is a way that we can continue to promote and brag about the wonderful things that’s happening on these amazing campuses. There are 101 HBCUs in this country, representing a little over 300,000 students, and 80 percent of the students who attend historically black colleges or universities, they will attend a public historically black college or university, and that’s – Thurgood Marshall represent the public. The remaining 20 percent students attend private HBCUs, but they’re still together as it relates to the historical nature of these institutions.

MS PORTER: Thank you so much for sharing that. And now, let’s move on to the international stage. So what should international media tell their audiences at home about the opportunities presented by HBCUs?

MR WILLIAMS:  Yeah, I’m glad you posed that question. And if you go to our campuses, you will see that we’re one of the most diverse campuses in the world as relates to students. Not only do we have students from America, we do have students from all over the world, all over Africa, the Caribbeans, China, Europe – you name it, they are on our campuses. The one thing that I can say that is that is clear: We have never – let me underscore this – we had never denied anyone access to an education. We have been denied access to an education, but we have never – HBCUs have never said no to any race, any country, anyone that have an interest in pursuing a higher education degree. And we have all the professional programs that you can pursue. If you’re interested in law, you’re interested in medicine, you’re interested in architecture, you’re interested in education, we have it on our campus, and our students are thriving in those areas. So I would encourage our foreign friends, if they’re interested in a quality education, you can look at our institutions. And the richness of the history that’s associated with an HBCU, I can’t explain it in terms of – it’s a feeling that you have. And Ms. Porter, I know you know what I’m talking about in terms of what – (laughter) —

MS PORTER: I know exactly what you’re talking about.

MR WILLIAMS:  — in terms of that process.

MS PORTER: Well, I thank you for underscoring that HBCUs – again, and an emphasis on “historically, ” the first word in the acronym. It’s historically for Black and African Americans because, again, we were excluded from higher education, we were excluded from other areas of America, and so we had to make our own. But with that– from personal experience, I had several friends and people who went to Howard with me who were of South Asian and East Asian descent and who were very strong, proud Bison just like me, and it was wonderful to see that. And again, it’s prevalent at other HBCUs as well.

Now let’s talk a little bit more about what your organization is doing. As you know, there are students all over the country, no matter what ethnic background they come from that have financial troubles. And of course, some African American students face challenges with regard to access to funding for higher education. So will you tell us more about the work of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to address those issues?

MR WILLIAMS:  Yes. One of the things that I – as I mentioned, the purpose of this organization was not only to provide financial resources to support students, but also provide them with opportunities to secure amazing opportunities in corporate America. We recognize very clearly in this country, as you all know, it’s about access and having the ability to put your talent on display and having someone to be able to take a look at you. And we know in this country, some of our corporate partners are looking to diversify their companies, and part of diversity is making sure you have people from a wide variety of viewpoints, wide variety of perspectives. And HBCU is a place where companies look to in terms of their diverse talent.

And so what we have been able to do here at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, we’ve been able to partner with some of the top Fortune 100 companies in America and providing our students with a – what we call a door opener. And we’re not – it’s not a handout. We’re not providing anybody with anything that someone is not – that they are not – they haven’t been able to earn. It’s an opportunity, and that’s what equity is all about. It’s about fairness. It’s about creating those opportunities that some of us may not have access to.

So HBCUs and working with our corporate partners, we’ve been able to introduce major corporations to the talent that exist on our campus in a unique way and bringing our students out and interviewing for internships so that they can not only achieve an opportunity with an internship, but also securing a job after graduation. Because one of the things that we are interested in is narrowing the wealth gap between blacks and whites in this country, and we’re still at the bottom when you look at wealth in this country. African Americans are still at the bottom when it comes to financial wealth. And education – and Thurgood Marshall argued this – education is the key of lifting people up out of their current situation, and by providing educational opportunities, you have an opportunity to not only get an education, but also to advance. And one degree, taking someone that’s been – that might be the first in that family to go to college and taking them out of that situation, it changes the whole entire family structure from that perspective, and it provides economic opportunities for their growth.

So improving and increasing the number of African Americans getting into the middle class, and that helps America, and it makes America continue to move in a very positive and strong way.

MS PORTER: Thank you for sharing that. I want to go back to what you mentioned about Vice President Harris before. Of course, her election has brought renewed attention to HBCUs. So can you tell us more about how the Thurgood Marshall Fund has partnered with the Vice President on policy issues such as building capacity for research and workforce preparation for students?

MR WILLIAMS:  Yeah. So one of the things that we have been very strategic and working with the current administration – and as you referenced earlier in my introduction about – that I spent some time in Delaware. And as you know, the President is a Delawarean and right before I left Delaware State, we invited him to be our commencement speaker, and he was a commencement speaker at Delaware State.

And so he has a clear understanding of HBCUs and I think that makes a major, major difference. He has a understanding that – of their value, coming from a state that’s got a proud HBCU there and coming – being a former senator there and understanding the importance of connecting and what that institution has done – what – from an economic standpoint, what that institution is doing for that particular state. So that puts a different perspective on it.

And to have the Vice President there who understands clearly the importance of having research dollars – as you know, your institution is a major research institution, but in order for that institution to continue to grow and thrive, research dollars coming from the federal government could play a critical role in building capacity for those institutions. So by having someone like that and having the President to put – to have a platform and to make it very clear that the values of HBCUs play – the importance of HBCUs play a critical role in advancing America. He made it very clear that he was going to make over $70 billion of investment in historically black colleges and university. And that was – that’s part of his platform, and we’ve been very deliberate in working with him. And he’s got a lot on his plate right now, but we’ve had meetings with the White House. We’ve met with your former boss, Cedric Richmond, who has been the point person on this. And we are very, very encouraged about what this administration will do to support historically black colleges and university.

As you know, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund is bipartisan, so we don’t pick sides. We work with both administrations. We work with both sides. We got two bills passed this past Congress, the 116th Congress, and it was a bipartisan bill that got passed, and there was no way it was going to be able to get passed without bipartisan support. It’s the FUTURE Act and the HBCU PARTNERS Act, two major laws that was – that have been designated to support historically black colleges and universities in this country.

MS PORTER: Thank you for sharing that. I remember quite well working with my old boss on the FUTURES Act. Thank you so much for your time and thank you for letting me ask you questions. And now we can turn it over to Liz so we can hear from the journalists.

MR WILLIAMS:  Thank you.

MODERATOR: Yes, thank you, Dr. Williams, and thank you, Deputy Spokesperson Porter for that great discussion. And now we’ll start the Q&A with our participating journalists.

For our journalists, if you have not already done so, please take the time now to rename your Zoom profile with your full name and the name of your media outlet. If you have a question, you can virtually raise your hand via the participant field, or you’re also welcome to submit questions via the chat function and I will read them.

And I’ll now start with our first question from Pearl Matibe from South Africa. Go ahead, Pearl. Please unmute yourself and you’re welcome to turn on your camera.

QUESTION: Thank you, (inaudible). Yes, thank you so much for your making yourself available and the information that you have shared. I have a question. I guess I’m wondering, for example, in term – I know Howard University has a very strong Russian department, and this is an interest of mine – I am learning Russian, but at George Mason University – but I wondered, given the historical ties with the Civil Rights Movement and, at the time, the U. S. S. R. , there is not yet a large number of women – African American women who are, for example, in the peace and security field and maybe tied with a foreign language. As you might know, critical languages such as Russian are important and there is the percentage of African Americans in this field in the country. Maybe you might speak to that.

I see on your website you talk about that you – the funding is for all classification of students, but could you explain what that means when you say “all classifications”? What’s contained in that bucket of all classification of students, and is there any emphasis on students studying Russian and aiming for security studies? Thanks.

MR WILLIAMS:  Well, thank you for that question, and it’s a very good question and it’s a very important question. We have institutions that do offer strong foreign language programs. And what I would encourage you to do – to do exactly what you did, is go to our website and look at those institutions, and we have a link of those from – listed.

But the majority of our students that attend our institutions, a large percentage of those students are science, technology, engineering, and mathematics majors, STEM majors, and which, as you know, is a underrepresented area for African Americans. So we – there’s a big emphasis on STEM. We do have liberal arts institutions that will have strong foreign language programs. Some of those institutions will link their programs with bigger institutions in terms of partnerships from that perspective. And I don’t have a list of those with me right now, but you can go to our website and look at the institutions that are listed there for – and then inquire to get a little bit more information on that.

As far as our programs that we offer through the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, what we – when we say “all classifications, ” we’re specifically talking about from freshman year right on up to graduate school. And we do have some very specific programs that are focused on, as I indicated earlier, STEM, but we do have some that will allow you to use the funds for general majors, liberal arts majors, from that perspective, and all that is listed on our website from that viewpoint.

MS PORTER: And Pearl, I can take the second part of your question noting African American women who – and I think you noted that there was a smaller cohort of African American women who were in the peace and security field. Similar to what Dr. Williams has already said about the history of HBCUs is how we started to form our own universities because we were left out.

In recent years, women like me who are and – women peace and security and who are African American women started to form our own, so – and I just want to highlight someone who is actually with her confirmation pending, Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, who formed an organization called Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security, of which I’m a member of and have been since the founding in 2017, and– it’s an organization that’s actually global. There are chapters in Europe, there are chapters all over the country, and it’s still growing. And so I’d charge you to look into that, too, because we – there are plenty of us.

We have Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who like me is a Southern lady and preaches her “gumbo diplomacy, ” as we like to say. We have Ambassador Spratlen, who just started here, and several others down the list and others throughout history. But it seems we were probably not given the same opportunities in life, because, again, we had really no place to convene except for organizations that were recently founded. So I would also suggest you look into that as well since it’s a global organization.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay. So I’m just looking to see if we have additional questions from our journalists. It doesn’t look like anyone else has any questions. I think we asked such wonderful questions, Jalina. And thank you, Dr. Williams. This has been an incredibly informative briefing. And I think we have now come to the end, so I would like thank you for giving your time today to this timely and important topic and to Principal Deputy Spokesperson Porter for co-moderating the discussion.

As a reminder, the transcript and the video of this briefing will be posted later today on the FPC website, fpc. state. gov. Thank you and good morning.

MR WILLIAMS:  Thank you. Thank you.

MS PORTER: Thank you.

U.S. Department of State

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