HBCUs are at an important moment right now. Parents and teachers need to consider the whole story as a new generation prepares to enter college.

In Hampton, Virginia, there is an oak tree that has been standing for over 200 years.

It is known as Oak of emancipation.

It got its name because in 1863, the tree was where many enslaved people heard Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation read, a reading that restored their humanity and freed them from the chains of legalized slavery.

This story is good enough on its own, but it’s not what intrigues me the most.

Two years ago, under the same tree, a black woman named Mary Smith Peek — the first teacher employed by the American Missionary Association — committed an almost treacherous act of teaching the daughters and sons of the black people who had taken refuge at Fort Monroe.

Not only is this tree a national landmark, but it now lives on the campus of Hampton University, a historically black university founded just three years after the end of the bloody Civil War.

Emancipation Oak’s story highlights the popular conversations we often have about HBCUs, and more specifically, the ones we DON’T have about HBCUs.

I share this story for two reasons.

First, I cannot escape the historical poetry of black women, like the Liberation Oak itself, who spread their arms to protect children from a harmful world and educate the next generations to create a better one.

Second, the story of Emancipation Oak highlights the popular conversations we often have about HBCUs, and more specifically, the ones we DON’T have about HBCUs.

Historically black colleges and universities have made headlines since the 1980s.

Whether it’s thanks to shows like A Different World (which helped drive a 24% increase in attendance) or movies like Spike Lee’s School Daze, Beyoncé’s use of HBCU bands at Coachella, or Chadwick Boseman proud of Howard University’s heritage — the chain of more than 100 schools is never far from the headlines, especially when it’s associated with megastar alumni like Oprah Winfrey and Erykah Badu.

These names are like the leaves of the Oak of Liberation—they are bright and beautiful and transform centuries of pain into life-affirming fuel.

The roots of HBCUs lie deep in the blood-soaked soil of our nation, tilled by hands that have studied our nation’s immoral laws to better combat them.

But what about the roots?

The roots of HBCUs lie deep in the blood-soaked soil of our nation, tilled by hands that have studied our nation’s immoral laws to better combat them. People like Mary Smith Peek, Booker T. Washington, and Mary McLeod Bethune don’t often make the headlines, but are no less important to the success of these schools.

I say this because HBCUs are at an important moment right now, and I want parents and educators to consider this whole story as a new generation prepares to enter college.

Since December, when the news broke that Deion Sanders was leaving his job coaching football at Jackson State University for the predominantly white University of Colorado, HBCUs and their importance grab the headlines.

Like the former HBCU Band Director, I know the history and importance of black excellence in sports. In case you don’t know, at a black school, the band and the team are one. We practice on the same field, often use the same locker rooms and practice every game day.

Raising the profile of black athletes at black schools is no small thing, and I understand why some were hurt by Sanders’ decision.

The buzz wasn’t just about football — it was about respect for institutions that provide respite from racial anxiety in an era of countless hashtag deaths and dangerous misinformation. HBCUs have a deep, rich history of activism and political excellence.

It’s nearly impossible to walk the halls of an HBCU and not feel the weight of history.

It’s nearly impossible to walk the halls of an HBCU and not feel the weight of history.

From the dire necessity that spawned these schools to the faces and names that fought and died to get you there, attending an HBCU can be a good burden—one that continues to inspire new generations to pursue political science, law, engineering, sociology, computer science and journalism in some of the nation’s top-rated programs.

That’s not to say that black students can’t pursue their dreams at predominantly white institutions, but I can personally attest to learning about what blacks have accomplished in science, politics, and business from a black professor in a room full of black students , a unique and powerful thing.

Knowing you’re sitting in the same classroom as Stockley Carmichael, WEB Du Bois, or Alex Haley is a reminder that we have a responsibility to bend the moral arc of this country toward justice.

HBCUs planted the seeds, and with the help of parents, guardians, and educators, it’s your turn to blossom.

Frederick S. Ingram is secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, which serves 1.7 million members, including teachers in grades K-12; support staff of schools and colleges; faculty of higher education; federal, state, and local government employees; and nurses and other healthcare professionals. Ingram is immediate past president of the 140,000-member Florida Education Association. He was also the Vice President-Elect of the AFT Executive Board.

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