In the Blackest of all stage acts, Black billionaire Robert F. Smith—the founder of the private equity firm Vista Equity Partners—made it rain on Morehouse College’s class of 2019 during his commencement address on Sunday.
Smith’s approximately $40 million pledge was made to “his” Morehouse class of 396 men, through the repayment of educational loans.
The gift is the largest of any single donor ever in the one and three quarter century history of the little more than 100 institutions that bear the federal designation as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)—that’s among all of them y’all, everywhere.
And Black people everywhere caught the spirit, most of us weren’t even there. But when I typed, “Shalalashondo,” Black folks knew what it meant. We wouldn’t have been one bit surprised if the entire Yard had fallen out—slain, in the spirit of a mighty miracle.
The moment is certainly an unforgettable one. It’s up there with when the sky opened up and torrential rain stormed down on the heads of Morehouse’s class of 2013.
Morehouse Men, along with their family and friends sat rain-soaked, listening intently to President Barack Obama as he advised them to shirk excuses. He reasoned, I suppose, that he was giving them hope.
This year though, in the midst of a sunny day, Smith’s pledge rained financial freedom!
As the products of a college begun in just two years after the close of the Civil War as the Augusta Institute for the training of black preachers and teachers, Morehouse Men know the value of freedom.
It was through tireless labor that Georgia native John Hope, the first Black president of the college—and, later, president of the then-Atlanta University—made Morehouse’s early-20th-century renown possible.
The college’s sixth president, the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays is widely-credited with developing the “Morehouse Mystique” which ushered in the development of globally recognized thought-leaders including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., social activist Horace Julian Bond, and Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.
More than a half-century later, this generation of Morehouse Men, like so many before them, know that freedom, of any kind, is a priceless and the most precious of all gifts.
“Over the heads of her students, Morehouse,” once observed alumnus, Black mystic and theologian the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, “holds a crown that she challenges them to grow tall enough to wear.”
On Sunday, Smith pledged to make the final payment for that crown for 396 men. In consequence, their families slept a bit easier in the nights since. In the future, these overwhelmingly Black men will walk into the next chapter of their lives without the yoke of educational debt.
That is why one can easily characterize Smith’s gift as love, in-action: the gift of a top-notch, identity-affirming education with financial freedom is truly transformative.
It is hope, realized. This is what HBCUs strive to do every single day.
This is why this gift matters—so much. It matters that the gift was made to a historically-Black educational institution. It matters that the graduates are overwhelmingly Black men. It matters that this gift was given to them by a Black man. Black on Black on Black excellence, matters.
This gift matters because it demonstrates what HBCU advocates already know: You don’t have to be an HBCU graduate or employee to see the value of an HBCU. You don’t have to be an HBCU beneficiary to be an HBCU benefactor.
The only prerequisite of support for HBCUs is a belief in the right and responsibility of education’s transformative power, even to the least of these.
“You cannot have witnessed the history I have or walked the halls of Morehouse as you have, without profound respect for those who, generation after generation…nudged, shoved, and ultimately bent that ‘arc of the moral universe’ closer to justice,” Smith said in his commencement address.
Yes, Mr. Smith!
Believers in these institutions know that HBCUs—and their every student, of every year, every year—through their founding mission and with dogged existence have proudly educated “the haves” and many more “have nots.” None of them, including Morehouse, only educate “sure bets.”
So while a gift of up to $40 million dollars to wipe out the student debt of around 400 students seems staggering to some, HBCU alumni educational debt has long outpaced their counterparts at historically-white institutions.
Many reasoned that an average of $100,000 indebtedness was an unreasonable amount of debt for a college graduate.
First, I don’t know what reality these people live in, but college is expensive. Second, the likelihood of Black students taking out loans is greater than their white peers. Finally, HBCUs specifically, typically disproportionately serve the most vulnerable of all black college students.
Financial vulnerability and academic capability are not mutually exclusive. Take for example the story of Antone De’Juan Davis Correia, who was among yesterday’s Morehouse graduates and Smith’s benefactors.
As the nephew of Troy Davis, who was executed by the state of Georgia in September 2011, following a national campaign to have him granted clemency, Correia also lost his mother, Martina Correia to cancer less than three months later.
He enrolled in Morehouse in fall 2013, pursuing a dual degree in engineering and physics in part through the financial support of donations. And, in his sophomore year, having made the dean’s list during his first semester, Correia sought and secured financial help with his tuition via an IndieGoGo campaign.
According to former National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) President Ben Jealous, Correia, with whom he has maintained a relationship with since 2011, is scheduled to begin work the day after his graduation as an engineer.
In Smith’s words: “There are those who dismiss our brothers and sisters as not having the training or the skills to take part in this Fourth Industrial Revolution, the 21st-century tech-based economy. This is not true and this belief is not acceptable!”
Of that, Correia is proof-positive. And for this gift, Smith said that he and his classmates are now indebted only to the highest calling to be their best selves.
“You are responsible for building strong, safe places where our young brothers and sisters can grow with confidence, watch and learn from positive role models, and believe that, they too, are entitled to the American Dream,” said Smith.
As a two-time HBCU graduate, faculty member, historian and cultural commentator, Smith’s address—like his gift—was one for the ages.
Unlike not enough HBCU commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients, Smith’s address was thoughtful, incisive, and evidently, carefully, time-stakingly prepared.
As a speaker and honoree, Smith came to give, not merely to receive. Smith was not merely honored, he acted honorably.
And for this our hearts are glad. The standard has been raised—no future HBCU commencement speaker, much less honoree, should venture to these hallowed spaces, command the attention of its students and supporters on the most sacred day of the academic calendar year, merely to leave with a check—being a prima donna is only wonderful if one is the lead singer in the company on an opera stage.
I say: no more begging people to be in our good company.
Many will rightly point out that dollars even $40 million is not the end all and be all. They pointedly ask is Smith’s gift going to eradicate the systemic issues which enable economic and other inequalities? No.
But does it make a difference in the lives of 396 men, their families and communities? Hell, yes.
Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is the founder of the HBCUstory and an associate professor of history at Kentucky State University.