By Bob Allen
A Baptist college opened in 1879 to educate former slaves that is currently forming ties with the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship has received official recognition as a historically black college or university.
Simmons College of Kentucky is one of 107 HCBUs recognized by the U.S. Department of Education nationwide, and just the second in Kentucky. The designation, announced by college president Kevin Cosby on Twitter, qualifies the school for federal funds, a boost toward the Louisville pastor’s goal of revitalizing the school that named him 13th president in 2005.
Cosby, pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., recently linked arms with the Kentucky branch of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Cosby, a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville who has taught, preached and held leadership positions at the SBC seminary, said at the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship’s recent spring gathering that one reason he sought out the Fellowship is concern over Calvinism being introduced into his community.
“He sees the strain of Calvinism some are trying to plant there as harmful, as it makes people fatalistic and docile, the antithesis of African-American empowerment,” KBF interim coordinator Chris Sanders summarized Cosby’s remarks in a KBF newsletter. “He is opposed to all forms of discrimination, be it race, gender or sexual orientation.”
Cosby complained in a January tweet that “ultra-conservative Calvinist seminaries make black ministers strangers in their own community.”
“ML King was not a Calvinist, but a Liberationist,” Cosby said in another post. In another he generalized “whenever black ministers are trained by ultra-conservative, Calvinist seminaries they become docilized and de-radicalized.”
Historically black colleges and universities played a strong part in American history. Martin Luther King, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, to name a few, all graduated from HBCUs.
They continue to function in an important role of educational opportunity for underprivileged students. While HBCUs represent just 3 percent of the nation’s institutions of higher learning, they graduate nearly 20 percent of African-Americans who earn undergraduate degrees. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund says HCBU institutions graduate more than 50 percent of African-American professionals and public-school teachers.
Prior to the Civil War, there was no structured higher education system for black students in America, and in some parts of the country it was illegal. The Institute for Colored Youth, the first higher education institution for blacks, was founded in Cheyney, Pa., in 1837.
After the war, Congress passed a law requiring states with racially segregated public higher education systems to provide a land-grant institution for black students whenever a land-grant institution was established and restricted for white students.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson established a “separate but equal” doctrine in public education and encouraged black colleges to focus on teacher training to provide a pool of instructors for segregated schools.
After the Supreme Court struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, many of the public HBCUs closed or merged with traditionally white institutions. Those that stayed open limped along with poorer facilities and budgets compared with traditionally white institutions.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 defined an HCBU as “any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary [of Education] to be a reliable authority as to the quality of training offered or is, according to such an agency or association, making reasonable progress toward accreditation.”
The Carter, Reagan and Bush administrations all thought HBCUs were significant. President Carter signed an executive order in 1980 establishing a federal program “to overcome the effects of discriminatory treatment and to strengthen and expand the capacity of historically black colleges and universities to provide quality education.”
In 1981, President Reagan established the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which expanded the previous program and set into motion a government wide effort to strengthen HBCUs.
President George Bush issued an order in 1989 establishing a Presidential Advisory Board on Historically Black Colleges and Universities to advise the president and the secretary of education.
President George W. Bush transferred the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities to the Office of the Secretary within the U.S. Department of Education in 2002. President Obama signed an executive order in 2010 re-establishing the HCBU initiative and named a new board of advisors.
Robert Harvey, COO Simmons College of Kentucky, said being recognized as an HCBU “was an amazing moment for the community.”
“A simple phone call completely changed the aura around here,” Harvey, also a professor of religion, said in a news story by the Tom Joyner Foundation. “The biggest benefit of being a historically black college and university recognized by the department of education is the pride factor that we are going to bring back to the west Louisville community.”