What Historically Black Colleges and Universities Teach Us About Generosity
By Suzannah Omonuk
Harvard Divinity School | Master of Divinity | Class of 2023 | Simple Charity Intern
If you are reading this, you made it through 2020. So, first of all—congratulations! That was quite the rollercoaster, wasn’t it? At the moment, America is a year removed from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that claimed millions of precious lives and left us feeling more lonely and isolated than we had ever felt thus far. It has also been a year since the world witnessed the gruesome murder of George Floyd, an event that snowballed into what has been described as the largest civil rights movement in history. We were angry. We were sad. We were scared. We felt hopeless. So, we decided to do something about it.
Perhaps this is the entire story of human existence: Our universal desire for redemption, our need to fix things, the urge to adjust a wall hanging that looks just slightly tilted… Maybe everything that we do, good or bad, is at the most basic level a response to that innate desire to put right that which is wrong. For Christians, this is biblical. Something in our psyche knows that we were made for better. Adam and Eve were born into a utopian home. They had a garden that ensured a plentiful harvest for all people, an unbroken fellowship with each other and with God as well as endless summer days spent sipping pina coladas at the beach... (Okay, I might have made that last one up.) But we had to go and ruin it, didn’t we? Ironically, our human weakness overpowered us, and Adam and Eve were kicked out of their home. Since then, we have continued that cycle of being kicked out and kicking others out. Ours is a world rife with disunity, enmity, war, and—pay close attention—segregation.
“Segregation? That’s oddly specific.” Yes! So let's talk about it. During America’s era of segregation, a good education was one of the rights reserved only for White people. Black people were prevented from attending universities as part of a larger sinister effort to exclude and steal from Black Americans that which should have been rightfully theirs. Their humanity, their freedom and, now, their pursuit of knowledge. This is where Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) came in. Remember how we talked about the idea that everything we do is birthed out of a need to right a wrong? HBCUs are perfect examples.
HBCUs gave people of African descent the space to commune and learn from each other in an oasis of mutual love, respect and dignity. But make no mistake—HBCUs have never been exclusive to just Black students. They are some of America’s only historical institutions that have always held the door open for students of all races, cultures, status and creed. So you see, in many ways, HBCUs were also established to break the cycle of being kicked out and kicking others out. They represent a rare type of stubborn tenacity, the collective refusal of a people to be dehumanized, a fierce sense of determination and resilience that is not just angry at injustice, but angry enough to do something (good) about it.
You might be wondering, “...well thanks for the history lesson but what point are you getting at?” Don’t worry, I’m getting there!
Can you guess what enabled the first HBCU to materialize from just an idea into a reality? No, really. Take a wild guess. If you said money: *ding ding*! The establishment of the nation’s very first HBCU, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania was funded by the gift of Quaker philanthropist Richard Humphreys, who donated $10,000 towards the cause. The gift was 1/10th of his estate. One act of generosity, from a follower of Christ who was willing to go against the cultural milieu of a deeply racist 1837 America was the first necessary step in the flourishing of African American education.
At Simple Charity, our mission is “to help Christians practice solidarity with the poor.” Unfortunately, Western Christians sometimes think of the poor as an abstract group of people starving in an African village—perhaps a subconscious attempt to place some distance between us and them so that we can shrug our shoulders and say, “What am I supposed to do about that?” As an African immigrant living in America, I am telling you, dear reader, that there is no hierarchy to poverty. There are poor people in America too, and they are your neighbours. In this country, race and wealth are inextricably linked and if we truly desire to practice solidarity with the poor, we must be honest about that. And we are not limited to either the choice to do nothing at all or the choice to take the easy path of performative activism. As individuals and as a church, we can decide now to start loving HBCUS by giving to HBCUs. May the generosity of Richard Humphreys remind us that the type of love the Christian is called to is one not of simple feelings or words, but of action.
Remembering Christ’s words that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), I encourage these organizations as receptacles of your generosity:
HBCU VC - https://www.hbcu.vc/get-involved
The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) - https://uncf.org
The Tom Joyner Foundation - https://tomjoynerfoundation.org
Thurgood Marshall College Fund - https://www.tmcf.org
The HBCU Foundation - https://thehbcufoundation.org/donate/
HBCU First - https://hbcufirst.com/about-us/who-we-are
You can also give directly to your local HBCU, or any HBCU to which you feel led.