Dr. Christine Johnson McPhail: A Hope That Makes Things Better
You may be seated.
As you just heard in Matthew 17:4, Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, is it good for us to be here? If you wish, I will put up three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”. Today, I say on this HBCU Sunday, Lord, it is good for us to be here in this place, the Washington National Cathedral, a house of prayer for all. Indeed, it is good for us to be here together. Falcons and Bisons and Eagles, and Bulldogs, and Aggies, and Rattlers, and Golden Bulls and Broncos and Firebirds and Blue Bears and Rams, Bears and Vikings, and all of the other colleges. And of course, the Divine Nine. I just couldn’t resist doing that and calling in some of the HBCUs. I’m Christine Johnson McPhail, the 13th president of St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The university was founded in 1867 and Voorhees University was founded in 1897 in Denmark, South Carolina. These two HBCUs are affiliated with the Episcopal Church. And I tell you this morning that it is a profound honor to be standing before you today in this magnificent place to speak about a topic that is very dear to my heart. However, my presence on this stage is somewhat implausible. Let me explain what I mean. My late husband, Dr. Irving Pressley McPhail, served as the 12th president of St. Augustine’s University. On the 90th day of his tenure, he died due to covid complications. But before he passed away, he had collaborated with the Board of Trustees at St. Augustine’s University to develop a strategic plan to reimagine the university. Shortly after my late husband’s death, the Board of Trustees reached out to me and invited me to finish my husband’s journey. The Board Chair asked me in a very loud voice, “Dr. McPhail, do you believe that you can finish your husband’s journey?” Well, I went deep on him. I stole a tagline from President Barack Obama, and I very comfortably said, “Yes I can”. And that started my journey back to Raleigh, North Carolina.
I can tell you today, returning to St. Augustine’s University as the President rather than the First Lady, was the first major step toward my healing and helped me transform my pain to purpose. And here I am. I’ll also, before I go into the core points of my presentation, put a disclaimer on the page. I am not a preacher, but I am a long-term educator. I believe that we can learn lessons from the Bible. I believe the passage from Matthew has a lesson for all of us, whether we are alumni, current students, faculty, staff, or just supporters of the black experience.
For example, in the text today, on the mountain tops, God’s glory is revealed again by the transfiguration of Jesus. Before his disciples, Jesus was changed. He shone like the sun. He was beautiful. Some may say his melanin was popular. Transfiguration means a complete change of form or an appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state. When I read the passage, I thought, this is what we do at HBCUs. We by our faith and strength and hope, participate with God in the transfiguration of each of our students. And in the process we are changed, our communities are changed, and our nation is changed. Historically Black colleges and universities have been an integral part of the American academic landscape since they were introduced in 1837. So I’ll talk about a few points today. I’ll talk about the role of HBCUs. I’ll mention the relevancy of HBCUs. I’ll mention the hope that we have and the future of HBCUs and a few of our challenges and what we need to do to be sustainable.
Our schools have proven that a higher education experience, specifically tailored to the needs and interest of African-American students has built a record that is undeniable. We are making and have made remarkable progress to advance equity while we ourselves had to contend with a whole host of inequities in the process. We have proven our worth throughout the years playing an essential role in providing educational opportunities to black students who may have been pushed to the margins had we not had that space in their lives.
HBCUs, in my mind, is an American invention based on exclusion. HBCUs exist because of the United States history of exclusion, history of segregation and racism. With the end of slavery, following the Civil War, African-American citizens face numerous, too numerous to count, challenges to gain access to higher education. Financial barriers and admission policies unfair, made attendance at many colleges and university nearly impossible for most of the students that we are talking about serving. As a result, both federal legislations and efforts of church organizations like the Episcopal Church, worked to create institutions of higher learning that would provide access to African American students. The great majority of HBCUs in this country were founded between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the end of the 19th century. Once 400 strong, as of ‘23 there are 101 HBCUs located across the United States, both private and public. Including 81, which are still in its original form as an HBCU.
I often get this question and I’m gonna tell you how ridiculous the question is. The question is, well, with HBCUs, opening their doors, your flourishing, however, PWIs institutions have opened their doors to African-American students, are you still relevant? Or are we still relevant? That’s a frequent question. Are we still relevant? The answer to that question is a resounding yes. Let me tell you the ways that we are relevant. HBCUs provide unique education opportunities for African American students. HBCUs economic impact is undeniable all over the world. HBCUs are not only a source of higher education, but also an economic driver in America, particularly in the communities that we serve. We provide quality educations all over the world. The impact of HBCUs on our workforce is very, very clear. 27% of all African-American stem graduates, 50% of African-American lawyers, 40% of American engineers, 50% of all African-American public school teachers, 80% of African-American judges. Is that relevant enough for you? I think so.
Jelani Favors in his book, Shelter in the Time of the Storm: How Black Colleges Fostered Generations of Leadership and Activism, described HBCUs as “a vital seedbed for politicians, community leaders, reformers and activists.” Favors goes on to say that, “There is something happening inside HBCUs that doesn’t happen at other institutions”. He calls it “a second curriculum”, one that offers students a grounding in idealism, one that offers students a racial consciousness and one that fosters cultural nationalism. By the way, I’m talking about someone that works at North Carolina A and T State University. He is the Henry E. Frye Distinguished Professor of History. Moving forward, we cannot capture what Dr. Favors talked about in his book without understanding the importance of hope and how that is embedded in everything we do inside the HBCU world. Hope serves as a source of optimism, an expectation despite the struggles that we face. Without hope, HBCUs would not have had the courage to survive and the remain resilient.
According to our esteemed Bishop, Michael Bruce Curry, “Hope doesn’t just accept the way things are. He said, “Hopes dares to be more than hope, just the word.” He said, “We have to believe that something can be different and then work to make that happen”. That’s what HBCUs do. One example of hope sustaining HBCUs is, you remember higher education and the crisis that was going on in the 1980s? HBCUs like other institutions had to decide, do we cut back or do we keep on keeping on with our curriculum? HBCUs responded, we gonna keep on keeping on. We’re not cutting back our curriculum. We gonna keep on moving toward excellence. And that’s exactly what they did. On a personal note, we see hope every day when we pass by the St. Augustine Chapel. Our St. Augustine Chapel is a beacon of hope. It was built in the late 1800s with stones excavated by the students and construction coordinated by Bishop Henry Beard Delany.
Of course, our historical chapel is a little bit smaller than this chapel, but it’s perfect for us and it gives us hope. Each year we hold a program at the chapel. We call that program Stones of Hope to honor the figurative and literal rocks of faith. Sometimes we cavalierly, we throw the word hope around. I hope it doesn’t rain. Maybe it won’t storm today either. But at HBCUs we know that hope is much more than that. It’s our lifeblood. It’s what keep us going. We learned that hope is hard as a stone. A hope that doesn’t just wish things would get better. A hope that makes things better. And we try to fervently instill that into our students. Let’s be clear then also, I’ve talked to you about the hope. I’ve talked to you about how wonderful we are, how relevant we are.
But let me be clear. We do have some challenges. HBCUs throughout the country face financial challenges. We have declining infrastructures. Our enrollments sometimes are challenge due to some of the external factors. We have aging faculty. We have increasing cost of education like other institutions, and we need to work progressively to find ways to sustain our universities. So we rely on internal and external resources and partnerships and alliances to keep us going. So in addition to our tuition dollars, we receive support from our alumni, local communities, from corporations, associations like the United Negro College Fund and Thurgood Marshall. For example, the United Negro College Fund has launched ways to provide additional resources to the private independent colleges to focus on capacity building. How do we start where we are now and build more aggressive programs so we can have long-term sustainability of our institutions? Now I’ve arrived at the point in my conversation that I need to talk about.
It is time to do more. It is time to do more. We must unite with each other to obtain more support for our HBCUs. Thank you, Washington National Cathedral, for happen to elevate, elevate, take it higher, the conversation about how we can support our HBCUs through hosting HBCU Sunday. You made it real. You said, we need to pay attention to HBCUs in this country. I believe that with this type of support, this type of increased awareness, we can increase the support for HBCUs. So today, since you gave me the microphone, I’m calling upon all interested parties to continue to unite around obtaining more support for HBCUs. Let me tell you why. Over 90% of our HBCUs need funding to repair buildings and to build new ones, to build laboratories, residence hall and research facilities. While HBCUs can produce miraculous results with our existing resources, it is worth noting that we need additional help.
We need additional help. Now, I don’t want you all to think that I do not recognize that the federal government has been bringing some money to table. What I’m gonna tell you, that money that’s coming to the table to HBCUs, you can say, 150 million dollars, that’s wonderful and it is. But it’s the tip of the iceberg of what our needs are. We can do better. Before I close though, I do want to go back to the scripture that we started with. After Jesus is transfigured, Peter says, “Lord, is it good for us to be here? Now it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will make three dwells here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”. And Jesus says nothing. Imagine they were sitting there in the waiting silence. God breaks through a dazzling cloud and claimed Jesus as his child.
Moses and Elijah depart. The disciples are overcome by fear. The scene could have ended there, but it didn’t. Jesus reaches down and says to his disciples, “Get up and do not be afraid”. That’s what I wanna say today about those folks who are interested in HBCUs. Whether you’re a corporation or you’re an individual, it’s time for us to get up. It’s time for us not to be afraid and talk about and support the work that needs to be done to help HBCUs continue to claim their glory in the work that needs to be done. And I have to say to you, that’s what HBCUs do. We do the work. Whether we are private, whether we are public, whether we are huge, whether we’re small, whether we are rural, whether we are urban, we are all HBCUs serving students and communities that desperately need our help. It doesn’t matter where we are located, it doesn’t matter our size. Do not buy the bait that one HBCU is better than the other. We are all good at what we do.
So we must join hands across our differences and unite around our common goal. And that’s how we need to continue to support HBCUs. There must be a sense of urgency. There must be a sense of urgency. Whatever the HBCU is, we train, we educate, we transform the lives of our students and find ourselves connected to our particular legacies, cultures, and histories. And we are linked to one another. So I’m gonna go back to the passage again. In the waiting silence. Imagine. Go with me there. There’s everybody there sitting there. And all of a sudden, all of a sudden, God breaks through a dazzling cloud and claims Jesus as his child. Amen.
It is time for the state, local, federal governments, philanthropic organizations, corporations, to break through the layers of bureaucracy and come and claim their HBCU children and give us the money that you know we need in order to continue the legacy of higher education that is unparalleled in this community. We must all grasp the sense of urgency to provide real money to HBCUs. Can I say that again? Real money to HBCUs. If you believe as I do that, HBCUs are engines of transformational change. If you believe, as I do, that HBCUs are the pipelines for workforce diversity in this country and economic development in unparalleled ways. If you are willing to help us get the attention of legislators, alumni, community leaders, corporations, and whatever, to provide a sense of urgency for the work that must be take place, continue to take place in HBCUs, I have no doubt, I have no doubt that HBCUs will continue to thrive, not just survive, and supply leaders and global citizens to the nation and the world for now and into future. Congresswoman Alma Adams said it this way, “HBCUs are not just our past. HBCUs, they’re our present and they’re our future”. And that’s what I leave you with. HBCUs are not our past. They’re our present and our future. Thank you.