By Freddie Allen
NNPA News Service
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – It was a reunion of sorts. The presidents of seven Black colleges met Black newspaper publishers for a breakfast consisting of french toast, eggs and bacon. The setting was the annual convention of the National Newspaper Publishers Association held in Atlanta last week. And the goal was a familiar one – explore ways to strengthen a unique partnership that predated the modern Civil Rights Movement.
The relationship between Black colleges and the Black Press dates back to 1944, when Frederick Patterson, president of Tuskegee Institute and Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of what is now Bethune-Cookman University, established the United Negro College Fund, a federation of private Black colleges. Patterson utilized the Black Press to garner support for and increase the visibility of the fledgling organization and to also alert Blacks to the financial struggles of the 27 HBCUs sprinkled across the South at the time.
In the book, ‘Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund’, Marybeth Gasman noted the significance of the relationship between Black schools and the Black press to the survival of higher education in the Black community:
“According to Morehouse president Benjamin Mays, the UNCF required the support of the Black press including the Pittsburg Courier, the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro- American, the Atlanta Daily World and the New York Amsterdam News during this time as well as any time the Fund was asking for support: ‘It was important because all Negroes were reading and they were seeing how important it was, that the Negro colleges needed the Fund…You can’t get along without the media.’”
According to UNCF’s Web site, the organization has raised more than $3.3 billion and assisted in excess of 400,000 students attend college. Only the U.S. government has distributed more money than UNCF on higher education for African Americans.
“Frederick Patterson broached that idea through the Pittsburgh Courier,” said Raymond H. Boone, editor and publisher of the Richmond Free Press. “If it were not for the Black Press of that period, it’s a good chance that the idea wouldn’t have taken off. White papers were not publishing news about Black people and Black institutions in a positive way.”
Now, as the federal government cuts education funding to colleges and universities and threatens to double the interest rates on student loans, Black college presidents are again turning to the Black Press for support.
“In the four years I served as president, we lost 50 percent of our state appropriations,” said George Cooper, recently retired president of South Carolina State University.
“The budget decreased from $26 million to $11 million.” Ninety percent of the freshman students entering South Carolina State are eligible for Pell grants, said Cooper, meaning that their combined family income is less than $30,000.
Cooper suggested that the Black Press can help HBCUs convey their commitment and mission of providing access to opportunities to parents and students.
Black colleges and universities make up 3 percent of the higher education institutions in the U.S. but nearly 25 percent of the baccalaureate degrees are awarded to African-Americans, said Cooper.
Cooper also said that the Black Press can also explain federal legislation affecting Black colleges and students, including a proposal that could have doubled interest rates on subsidized Stafford college loans if Congress hadn’t acted.
Lawmakers were forced to work on a rushed agreement to avoid the rate hike, based partly on political pressure and negative coverage in the media.
Cooper also urged publishers to create a virtual communications network with HBCU presidents.
“We don’t have to have conversations face-to-face, but if there was a quarterly virtual platform where we could engage each other, it would allow you to really understand some of the issues that would impact us,” he said.
Even as smaller HBCU’s struggle to survive, Norman Francis, president of Xavier University in New Orleans said that he still gets asked if Black colleges are even relevant today.
“We need this partnership, what I’m seeing today is what I saw in the 60s. It’s coming back around the next civil rights revolution will be on education,” said Francis. “I plead with you to answer the question ‘Why America needs Black colleges?’”
Claude Perkins, president of Virginia Union University in Richmond said, “You need to get to know us. You need to get to know who we are, what we do and what our values are.”
Even as university officials implored the publishers to open their pages to the ongoing financial plight of Black colleges several of the publishers pushed back, noting that communication and effective partnerships live on a two-way street.
“We’re almost 190 years old,” said John Warren publisher of the San Diego Voice and Viewpoint and the Florida Tribune. “We’ve been doing what we do a long time. We need your people to understand who we are and what we do from a standpoint of cooperation and not from a standpoint of second thought.”
Warren said that the communication and PR departments at the schools should send out ready-to-print press releases and photographs for use in NNPA member newspapers, the same way that the predominantly White universities do.
For some publishers the key to a beneficial relationship between the NNPA and HBCUs is showing students the importance of media ownership.
“The Black Press was founded to speak out for our own cause,” said Boone. “That’s most important today at a time when corporate America has taken over the entire press and the political system through the money.”
James Washington, publisher of the Dallas Weekly, said: “Some of these newspapers have bought a few houses, cars for people, sent some kids to school, put some money in the bank. That’s capitalism. The Black Press is an institution.” Just like the Black school, and the Black church, the survival of the Black press is essential to the progress of the Black community, Washington noted.