Dr. Meldon Hollis knew he was going to have to be strategic if he was going to save the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, after former President Jimmy Carter lost his re-election bid in 1980.

The office, led by Hollis, had just been stood up under the Carter Administration earlier that year. Months later, the office and its charge — to support HBCUs across the country — was in danger of being cast aside by the incoming Reagan Administration, Hollis said.

“I got to think, ‘Alright, my first job is to set the office up but my second job is to figure out how to save the office,'” Hollis said to a virtual room full of more than 100 people gathered online to hear him speak at the end of February.

Meldon Hollis, the founding executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, took attendees back to school with an informative and interactive lesson on the history of HBCUs.

Meldon Hollis, the founding executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, took attendees back to school with an informative and interactive lesson on the history of HBCUs.

The virtual event was Virginia State University’s first in a series of programs dedicated to the presidential debate, slated to take place on campus on October 1.

Hollis enlists help from a jazz legend

Hollis discovered through a colleague that Lionel Hampton, a jazz legend and big Republican supporter based in New York, knew Reagan personally. He brought Hampton down to Washington, D.C., for dinner and a discussion about the importance of White House support for HBCUs.

“The problem with Mr. Reagan, was that Mr. Reagan grew up in Iowa and then moved from Iowa to California. Mr. Reagan didn’t even know there were Black colleges,” Hollis said. “So how are we going to convince him to look out for Black colleges?”

Hampton asked Hollis to write up a proposal, which he then planned to take to Reagan, but Hollis’ first draft was rejected: Hampton said it was too liberal to bring to a conservative politician.

“I rewrote it, I used a bunch of Republican language, the next thing I knew in Jet Magazine and in Ebony Magazine, Ronald Reagan had committed himself to HBCUs,” Hollis said.

Hollis’ campaign paid off. Every president since Carter, both Republicans and Democrats, signed executive orders in support of HBCUs. The office stands today, more than 40 years later, under its current Executive Director, Dr. Dietra Trent.

A celebration and history lesson

In that virtual classroom, Hollis, the founding executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, took attendees back to school with an illuminative and interactive lesson on the history of HBCUs.

That lesson, titled “The American Presidency and HBCUs: A Preeminent History,” provided attendees with a definitive understanding of the historic selection of Virginia State University’s for the second presidential debate of the 2024 general election.

The event started with a prayer, the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a poem in honor of Black History Month, and an awards ceremony to honor the work of VSU staff and faculty before Hollis delivered his keynote address.

Hollis’ speech was steeped in African American history, with an emphasis on HBCUs.

Along with the creation of the White House office and subsequent executive orders, Hollis discussed the historical constitutional and legal framework of HBCUs; different organizations developed to advocate for HBCUs; and issues currently facing HBCUs.

The historical constitutional and legal framework included the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868; the 1890s Land Grant Program; a series of court cases including Plessy v. Ferguson, Sweatt v. Painter, Briggs v. Elliott, Adams v. Richardson, U.S. v. Fordice; the creation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Title III of the 1965 Higher Education Act; and the Office of Civil Rights guidance on U.S. v. Fordice.

“After Reconstruction, the states had moved very quickly to separate Black people and white people for education, in fact, made it against the law for Black people and white people to be educated in the same place,” Hollis said. “So there was a system of Black colleges and white colleges already by 1890. Congress wanted to make sure the Black colleges were able to participate in the Land Grant Program.”

Different organizations developed to support HBCUs include the United Negro College Fund, which was founded in 1944 and today funds grants and scholarships for students; the National Association for Equal Opportunity, which was founded in 1969 by presidents and chancellors of HBCUs and today includes Predominantly Black Institutions and community colleges; and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, founded in 1987 by Dr. Joyce Payne to support the nation’s 47 public HBCUs.

“Eighty percent of all of the students who attend HBCUs are found in those 47 institutions,” Hollis said.

Regardless of that Executive Office support, historically Black land-grant universities in 16 states, including Virginia and Virginia State University, have been underfunded since 1987 compared to the level of funding received by their traditionally white counterparts, according to federal analysis.

The Biden Administration has called on those states to fund the universities equitably, Hollis said.

First debate to take place at an HBCU

The first HBCU was established in 1837. Today, there are about 100 public and private HBCUs across the country, Hollis said.

VSU will be the first HBCU to host a presidential debate. That forum, slated to take place on October 1, has been at the forefront of the minds of students, faculty and community members for the last three months.

VSU Debate Cover ArtVSU Debate Cover Art

VSU Debate Cover Art

VSU said in a statement in November that the debate “will leave a lasting impact on the campus community, the university’s reputation and our nation as a whole.” Spokespersons for the university have also said that students will play a key role in the democratic process.

Wednesday’s two-hour virtual program was the first of a series to provide education to the public on HBCUs and the presidential debate. VSU is in the process of setting up a website devoted to debate-specific events. In the meantime, details about university events can be found on the news and events webpage.

This article originally appeared on Staunton News Leader: VSU presidential debate series: The fight to support HBCUs

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