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WHAT I’M SAYING: Let’s straighten it out

by Howard Robertson

Special to The New Tri-State Defender

My family and black colleges go way back. For the roughly five generations black colleges have even existed, my family relationships with them are easily traced back through four of them. My grandparents met as students at LeMoyne Normal School in Memphis. Their youngest daughter (my mother) met my daddy at LeMoyne College. A black college facilitated my being, another one facilitated my becoming. That’s why I’m a driven advocate.

When one seeks to identify America’s oldest college or university the answer is always the same. It’s Harvard University, founded in 1636. While interesting, that fact is largely irrelevant to African Americans, since we were property, imported into North Americas by the boatloads to do everything except go to school.

It would be over 200 years later before black people could receive a higher education anywhere in the United States. But when one seeks to identify America’s oldest historically black college or university, now popularly known by the acronym HBCU, the answer is usually incorrect.

The incorrect answer usually given is Cheyney University in Pennsylvania because it was founded in 1837. But Cheyney was founded as the Institute for Colored Youth and later Cheyney State Normal School, the nation’s first black high school…not America’s first black college.

In 1854, in the Pennsylvania countryside, John Miller Dickey, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife founded Ashmun Institute, renamed Lincoln University in 1866. Lincoln was a degree-granting institution from its’ start. Given that the ability to grant degrees is the prerequisite for any college or university, this makes Lincoln University in Pennsylvania the oldest historically black college or university in America. Period.

Lincoln was on its’ fifth president in 1914 the year Cheyney began granting degrees. This is absolutely in no way meant to demean or minimize the rich history of Cheyney University. Lincoln and Cheyney are very close cousins, literally and figuratively. Cheyney is experiencing some challenges and needs everyone’s support right now. It’s just that if you don’t tell your own story, somebody else will get stuff wrong and mess it up. The history of The Lincoln University in Pennsylvania is much too storied and important to get wrong.

By the way, Richard Greener was the first black man to graduate from Harvard in 1870 (only 234 years after the institution was founded) and he would go on to become the first dean of the Howard Law School. But Lincoln was already churning out the best and the brightest at a rapid clip like: Thomas E. Miller who became the first black congressman in South Carolina and Nathan Francis Mossell who became the first black graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Lincoln University has prepared some of America’s most brilliant, beautiful, black minds and talent then dispatching them all over the world…for change.

People like:

  • Langston Hughes (poet, writer)
  • Cab Callaway (bandleader, singer)
  • Thurgood Marshall (Supreme Court Justice)
  • Kwame Nkrumah (first elected president of Ghana)
  • Monte Irvin (Hall of Fame baseball player)
  • Roscoe Lee Browne (actor)
  • Geoffrey Holder (actor, choreographer)
  • Nnamdi Azikiwe (first elected president of Nigeria)
  • Lillian Fishburne (first black female Navy Rear Admiral)
  • Gil Scott-Heron (singer/songwriter, activist)

Among Lincoln University alums, there are innumerable “firsts” in an incredible number of fields. Because Lincoln began as a men’s college, chapters of major African-American fraternities were among the first ever established: Alpha Phi Alpha-Nu chapter established in 1912, Omega Psi Phi-Beta chapter established in 1914, Kappa Alpha Psi-Epsilon chapter established in 1915 and Phi Beta Sigma-Mu chapter established in 1922.

Lincoln always had powerhouse track teams. But neither most LU alums nor the general public know that since 1985, Lincoln University has won 17 NCAA (Div. III) Track and Field National Championships. That’s a winning percentage of 51 percent of the track national championships over the last 33 years, more national championships than any other HBCU at any level.

So, the headlines and posts you may have seen about troubles and financial woes at the nation’s “oldest” HBCU are fake news. The Lincoln University, PA is thriving under the capable, visionary leadership of Dr. Brenda Allen, the first female Lincoln alum to ever lead the university.

African-American individuals and institutions must carry forth the rich legacy and tradition of LU alums like Gil Scott-Heron and Langston Hughes, to more intentionally and more prominently chronicle “ourstory” and voice narratives of our own truths.

And when somebody gets it wrong, never fail to straighten it out.

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