Not long after she returned to Howard University as a professor in 2013, Jennifer Thomas found herself overcome with emotion. Tears formed in her eyes as the school song blared from the clock tower on the Washington, D.C., campus.
Thomas called it a “full circle” moment. She spent 25 years as an award-winning local and national television producer, almost always the lone Black woman in her position. But there she was, back on The Yard, as a journalism professor, and the juxtaposition of college years and new career side by side was poignant.
“The reality of teaching students who walked those same paths I walked was very surreal,” she said. “I’m even teaching out of the same classrooms I sat in as a student. And some of my professors are now my colleagues. It’s all been the most overwhelming thing.”
Overwhelming, but rewarding. Thomas said she made the choice to change careers for one reason: The opportunity to educate Black students at a historically Black college.
“I was perfectly intentional in coming to Howard,” Thomas, the college’s journalism sequence coordinator, told NBC News. “And I have been over the moon being here. For Black professors, working at an HBCU can’t be about the money. It’s a calling.”
The matter of Black college professors — and tenure — came to the fore this spring when Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure at the University of North Carolina’s school of journalism was controversially delayed.
Although she had been approved through the protracted process, members of the UNC board of trustees held off her confirmation reportedly because they were uncomfortable with the “1619 Project” she created two years ago for the New York Times Magazine. Among conservatives, the project depicting the country’s founding in 1619, when the first documented enslaved Africans came to Colonial Virginia, was considered unpatriotic and controversial.
After a public battle and protests from UNC students and faculty, Hannah-Jones was eventually offered tenure but instead announced she had accepted a position at Howard University, along with award-winning journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Her decision put into focus the intrinsic value of Black professors teaching Black students at Black universities.
“I have decided that instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were,” she wrote in a statement. “I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed that a project that centered Black Americans equaled the denigration of white Americans. Nor can I work at an institution whose leadership permitted this conduct and has done nothing to disavow it.”
Gerard McShepard watched Hannah-Jones’ saga play out and came away proud of her actions. He understands something about being tenured. He can tell you the time — 1:33 p.m. on May 7 — when he was notified that he became a tenured professor of microbiology and other subjects at Virginia Union University, one of the oldest historically Black schools in America. It meant so much to him that he documented the occasion to the minute.
Later, he treated himself to a “nice dinner, a bottle of wine, a new suit,” among other things, McShepard said. “And I’m not finished celebrating, either.”
Such is the elation and relief — but primarily the satisfaction — that tenured Black professors at HBCUs say come with achieving academia’s zenith. Tenure ensures job security for professors; in some cases, this allows academics to research and teach subjects that may be considered controversial, including racial inequality.
“I come from a line of educators dating back to my grandmother, mother and father and my sister,” said McShepard, who earned all his degrees from HBCUs: bachelor’s degree from Fisk University, master’s from Tennessee State University and doctorate from Meharry Medical College.
“There is a lot of value of being a professor at an HBCU,” he said. “We still teach a lot of first-generation students, and there is an opportunity to have a small classroom setting to mold and shape the leaders of tomorrow. I always say that the success of the scholar protects the name of the university, and this is how we do our part to make sure that the young scholars make it to the finish line in their educational endeavors.”
Gerry White, a sociology professor at Clark Atlanta University — who will be up for tenure after the upcoming academic year — called Hannah-Jones’ decision “absolutely brilliant.” He did point out, though, that Black journalism students at UNC, particularly, will lose out.
White said Hannah-Jones’ decision was not radical, but conscientious.
“When you choose to teach at an HBCU, you are giving back,” White said. “For her taking her brilliance and her talents to an HBCU, I mean they’re getting a gift because we’re really not just teaching at an HBCU; we’re pouring in. We’re pouring into a student body all of our shared and relatable experiences that we know they will face out there as they take on the world.”
Thomas earned her tenure at Howard in 2019, which she said served as validation of her career, but she said it also meant she had a confirmed pathway to continue to prepare students to help change lopsided diversity numbers in media.
“I was a producer trainee, and then fast-forward 20 years later when I left CNN, I was the first and only Black executive producer of a news program at the network,” she said. “So that shows that in a span of 20 years, not much changed. And in order for us to make any significant difference in changing the narrative, or the perspective, or adding context to the stories that we tell, we have to be in the room.”
That point illuminates the significance of Hannah-Jones landing at an HBCU. David R. Squires graduated from UNC’s journalism program in 1980. A lecturer for the last three years at North Carolina A&T State University, an HBCU, Squires agreed with the 41 UNC faculty members who wrote an open letter saying, “While disappointed, we are not surprised. ... The appalling treatment of one of our nation’s most-decorated journalists by her own alma mater was humiliating, inappropriate, and unjust.”
Squires said it was “not shocking in the climate of white supremacy we live in today and the ongoing quest to undermine talented Black people.”
While he said he “loved and appreciated” his time as a student in Chapel Hill, he recalled many concerns he and other Black students had about fairness. In particular, as editor of the Black Ink, the Black student newspaper, securing funding was “always a challenge,” he said.
“UNC had a reputation as being a liberal school,” he said. “But insiders knew differently. I had a journalism scholarship, and at one point, I did a lot of critical journalism about the university on race issues. Well, when they had scholarship announcements for the next semester, my name wasn’t called. They took away my scholarship. I always suspected it was because of what I wrote in the Black Ink. ”
But that did not douse his spirit. Squires went on to become an award-winning sports journalist and has spent the last several years teaching at historically Black colleges. When he lived in Virginia, he taught multiple classes for free at Hampton University for four years, just to make an impact. He embraced the communal nature of HBCUs.
“It is very loving and nurturing,” he said. “You get a sense that most of your professors — most Black, some white — are there on a mission. They’re there because they want to help students because they understand the students’ unique situation as Black people in America.”
White said he had a cultural epiphany when he arrived on Clark’s campus as a graduate student, and it inspired him to return there to teach.
“Before I got to Clark, I had one Black professor in my life,” White said. “There were so many insanely brilliant Black students and faculty who were Black. That’s when I gained the desire to teach there, because I’m able to give everything that I wish I had gotten when I was an undergrad at a PWI,” or predominately white institution.
White taught at a predominantly white college before moving over to Clark almost six years ago. The differences in the experiences were stark, he said.
“I enjoyed teaching at the University of Georgia. But it’s different teaching white students,” he explained. “At UGA, you hear dialogue on a macro level, about practices and policy. At Clark, you hear the micro dialogue, about direct service, like counseling, helping people. At UGA, you have to make them read the material first, and then you tell them about it. Otherwise, it can get lost in translation. I can’t talk about the Trail of Tears, for example, and expect them to buy into it. They have to read it and then we can talk about it, bring it to life.”
“At an HBCU, it’s more affirming,” White continued “We tell them about the material we’re covering first, unpack it all, share ideas — and then have them read it. There’s no chance of things being lost in translation. We can discuss it with Black students right away ... and then they will read the material to learn more. That’s the difference in the approach. And I can tell you it’s hard to find a Black professor at an HBCU who doesn’t want to be there.”