Going to an HBCU as a Black Latina Taught Me a Very Critical Lesson

Anyone who attended Florida A&M University will triumphantly tell you she was built on the highest of seven hills in Tallahassee, Florida. It was proudly repeated rhetoric during my freshman orientation back in 2007. At the time, I was seeing my new college campus for the first time. I had never before witnessed anything like the vast sea of Black professors, students, and professional cohorts spilling from FAMU’s Lee Hall. “Historically Black” took on new meaning for me as I was introduced to one of the most revolutionary pillars of the North American Black experience
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Although Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were originally established to serve the African-American community during the period of segregation, HBCUs have also been instrumental in fostering the growth of Black descendants from outside the U.S., including Afro-Latines. Places like FAMU, one of more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities today, continue to create opportunities for Black and Indigenous people everywhere who could not see themselves learning at predominately white institutions (or PWIs). Black immigrant and/or Latine students like myself often benefit from the safe spaces created by all-Black academic institutions and also usher in unique cultural tethers and nuances to the proverbial HBCU experience.

“HBCUs were founded specifically to educate the descendants of enslaved people. Yes, the first cohort of the descendants of enslaved people were from the United States, but people of African descent across the Americas and Continental Africa were being educated at HBCUs for quite some time before integration of predominantly white institutions,” Howard University’s Dr. Nathalie Frédéric Pierre, who migrated from Haiti at two, tells Refinery29 Somos.   

"HBCUs have been instrumental in fostering the growth of Black descendants from outside the U.S., including Afro-Latines."

Marjua estevez
Like me and many others with roots throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, Dr. Pierre did not come from an HBCU background. She, too, was naive to the concept of historically Black institutions up until reading about one inside a popular Zane novel. She decided to pursue an educational track at an HBCU largely because it was the first space outside of her home that didn't villainize or disparage Haitian immigrants. “Howard University, an HBCU, was the first place I knew where Haiti was being spoken about in a way that matched how my parents spoke about Haiti. Going to Howard confirmed a narrative I knew about my native country that is still not represented in the national media today,” she adds. “Attending an HBCU affirmed what my family taught me about my homeland.” 
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Today, Dr. Pierre is a dedicated history professor of the African diaspora. Her research deals with the Haitian Revolution, Haitian independence, and, more broadly, independence across the African diaspora. “The bulk of what I teach my students is slavery, one of the most violent traumas recorded in human history,” she says without pause. “And yet, while I am teaching my students the violence of that history, it's very important for me to create room for my students to recognize their ancestors were humans who experienced violence but who also experienced joy. We find the joy that our ancestors experienced through the cultural practices that live on.” 
Dr. Pierre stands on the shoulders of those giants. While little data and research can be easily procured about the diasporic legacies of HBCUs, thanks to Panamanian historians and educators like Dash Harris Machado and fellow Rattler Dr. Javier Wallace, we at least know that Black immigrant influence and contribution can be traced as far back as the early 1900s. “Booker T. Washington made tremendous efforts to enroll Afro-Cubans in his Tuskegee institute. Cubans who attended Tuskegee were able to use that experience to achieve upward mobility in Cuban society, especially in the field of architecture, a program that attracted most of the successful male Afro-Cubans at Tuskegee,” Machado said during a digital discourse she led on Black history in Latin America in July 2022. 

“Going to an HBCU brought me closer to my elders.”

Hannah J. Brooks
Tuskegee’s class of 1908 alone had representatives from Puerto Rico, Togo, St. Andrews Island of Central America, South Carolina, Japan, Haiti, and Cuba — where slavery had been abolished only 22 years before. Later in 1942, the Tuskegee airmen became the first Black military pilots in the U.S. armed forces, and Dominican Esteban Hotesse was among those serving.
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The first time I learned any real Dominican history beyond Julia Alvarez’s classic novel “In the Time of the Butterflies” was inside of FAMU’s library. My world was rocked when I cracked open part of “Los Negros, Los Mulatos y La Nación” by Franklin J. Franco. It would inspire me to further sift through the soil of my own family’s roots and later inform my own body politic and pro-Blackness. I’m not alone in that.   
“Going to an HBCU brought me closer to my elders,” says Hannah J. Brooks, an Afro-Cuban licensed attorney and fellow FAMU alum. “Seeing firsthand a lot of the visceral violent racism in Tallahassee and learning more details about the pre-Great Migration story gave me as many questions as it did answers. Asking my maternal grandparents more about their experiences made me begin to see their story of Mississippi to Chicago as not wholly dissimilar to the experience of [my father’s family] from Cuba to Chicago.”
Brooklyn, New York-born and raised Boricua Canela Una Martín Acosta Eatman, Ed.D can relate. The three-time HBCU graduate is vigilant about teaching her future children their diasporic tethers to mitigate lots of the uncertainty and questions they might have about themselves. “Hampton University nurtured my understanding of the African diaspora,” Eatman, who founded HBCU Pa’Lante, a program that connects the African diaspora to HBCU communities, says of her undergraduate years. “It’s different in the South, and that's what I had to find out. It was an eye-opener as a kid from Flatbush to draw the physical connections between people in places like Mississippi and, say, natives from Guyana, who I grew up around my whole life.”
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Similarly to Eatman, attending an HBCU set the stage for Brooks to make some familial connections of her own. “[Before going to FAMU], I didn’t know about Cuban involvement in the Angolan uprisings and several other African countries,” Brooks shares. “I lived in Botswana for a while and I also spent significant time in South Africa, and there were a bunch of Cubans there proudly talking about being descendants of the folks who came over to support Angolans when they were fighting the Portuguese colonizers.” 
Apart from offering afrodescendentes in the U.S. and across international borders the opportunity to learn about who they are and their shared diasporic foundations, HBCUs are profoundly family-oriented with a strong sense of community. This is something deeply integral across many Latine and immigrant communities, making it appealing for prospective HBCU students of immigrant Black and Indigenous households. This environment also helped foster Latin American and Caribbean spaces within these institutions. For instance, in 2017, Spelman College, Morehouse College, and Clark Atlanta University created AUC Vybez, a Caribbean student association, in response to each of the colleges' growing Caribbean student body.

"All of the things that made me weird or different, that made people tease or ridicule me, all that made me cool and was honored here.”

HANNAH J. BROOKS
“When I joined around my second year at Spelman College, we grew AUC Vybez from 30 to 500 members in approximately two semesters,” raves KaiYanna T. Washington, a graduate of the historically Black all-woman institution in Atlanta, who is of British-Jamaican descent. “So many of us treated AUC like a home away from home. That was the general consensus.” 
AUC Vybez gathered members with roots in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Belize, Panama, Grenada, Antigua and so many more at educational and recreational events. One of the most anticipated events of the year — J’ouvert, an annual celebration of Caribbean heritage — returned in 2022.
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Back at Howard, clubs like Baile Afro focus on exploring the various Afro-rooted dances from Latin America and the Caribbean, while Morgan State hosts the Latinx Student Association and Caribbean Student Association, whose annual “Rep Your Flag” grows more and more each year.
“Becoming an AKA gave me a full-circle moment of belonging at FAMU,” says Brooks of joining Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc, the first international sorority for Black women. “I grew up Spanish-speaking and all, but I grew up in Chicago. Where I was from, if you’re not Mexican, you're not Latino. This is what Latino was and this is what it looked like. In contrast, all of the things that made me weird or different, that made people tease or ridicule me, all that made me cool and was honored here.”

"The greatest jewel my alma mater gifted me was the understanding that I was part of a whole that wraps our planet, and not just a part of this so-called minority."

Marjua estevez
As for me, the greatest jewel my alma mater gifted me was the understanding that I was part of a whole that wraps our planet, and not just a part of this so-called minority. Here, I grew to understand the definition of Indigenous, and it crystalized for me all of the unique atrocities of those who were kidnapped, stolen, and forced to migrate before me. “We are all iterations of that throughout the Americas,” Brooks says poignantly.  
When asked about what’s at stake for HBCUs in higher education, and why any Black person from anywhere today would enroll at a historically Black college at a time when Black people occupy classrooms around the world, Brooks minced no words: “Our histories, Black and Indigenous people, are oral, and musical, and artistic, and extensive, and they are not always going to look like sheets of white paper. It’s not always going to look like a book. It’s not always going to be a documentary. There is so much more to us than that. Not only do we need the credit, but we need to be taken seriously as the actual only legitimate experts of our experiences. That is why HBCUs are important.”
Moreover, because so much of academia is traditionally a cadre of affluent white people taking the voices of Black and Indigenous people from around the globe and observing it, writing it down, and getting accolades for it, we need Black people living this experience getting accolades for that.
“How many white professors of African-American history, of Afro-Latino history, of African anthropology — how many are there? Way too fucking many,” she doubles down. “The audacity of these white people to make money teaching about the suffering of my grandparents. Señor, no te da vergüenza?”
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