‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ doesn’t tell the whole story of HBCUs, but it’s a start Documentary on PBS is the equivalent of an introductory survey course

A new PBS documentary about the nation’s historically black colleges and universities might just provide the best argument for a multihour, Ken Burns-type epic exploration of the subject.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities will air as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series on Feb. 19. Directed by Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution), Tell Them We Are Rising goes broad but not particularly deep as it attempts to recount the history of black higher education from slavery to the present day in an hour and 25 minutes.

It’s a useful primer for those who might not be familiar with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or their purpose, but Tell Them leaves much on the table when it comes to specifics. The documentary arrives at a time when the future of many HBCUs is uncertain as schools face the compounding weight of decades of financial strain, growing competition for students and pressure to keep tuition costs down.

Tell Them is at its best when delving into the birth of the institutions, many of which were established with the help of government land grants after the Civil War. Nelson outlines the philosophical differences between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington and briefly touches on the fact that in their infancies, many HBCUs were run by white presidents. While Nelson outlines the story of Fayette McKenzie, the Fisk University president who tried to ban any sort of social interaction between the sexes in 1924, he neglects to follow the legacy of McKenzie’s thinking, which shows up in the visitation policies on many a modern HBCU campus.

There are so many valuable, urgent story lines worth mining, and Tell Them simply doesn’t have the time to do them justice. The tradition of activism on HBCU campuses, which resulted in the creation of African-American studies programs and the de-Anglicization of many HCBU liberal arts programs also resulted in a deadly crackdown at Southern University. There’s the role fraternities and sororities such as Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Omega Psi Phi played in creating influential networks of black professionals. The legacy of protest hasn’t evaporated from modern HBCU campuses, but Tell Them falters in connecting past narratives to the present, whether it’s Howard University students protesting the George W. Bush administration or students nationwide criticizing their administrators for meeting with President Donald Trump. So much is curiously absent from the film, such as an exploration of the role Morehouse College played in shaping Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries in the civil rights movement. Mary McCleod Bethune, the founder of what’s now Bethune-Cookman University and one of the chief architects of black higher education, is an afterthought.

It’s a useful primer for those who might not be familiar with HBCUs or their purpose, but Tell Them leaves much on the table when it comes to specifics.

Tell Them functions as an outline for what ought to be a deep-dive serialized documentary. Such a format would offer more opportunity to address questions such as what to make of the controversial legacy of the nation’s first black president when it comes to federal treatment of HBCUs. What challenges do they face from a current presidential administration that so far only seemed interested in convening the presidents of those institutions at the White House to use them as props? What are the modern issues students are facing at HBCUs, whether it’s the fight for queer visibility or addressing a national dilemma of campus sexual assault that presents unique challenges for HBCUs and their students?

Still, it’s understandable why we haven’t seen a splurge on such a subject. It’s expensive and time-consuming, and there are only a couple of networks (TV One and BET come to mind) that might be interested in the sort of exhaustive research I’m suggesting, and even then it’s a stretch. Maybe Netflix, with its seemingly endless pool of programming funds, would be willing. Maaaaaaybe.

Tell Them We Are Rising introduces the idea that HBCUs are under threat, and it certainly seems to support the idea of their continued existence. But aside from a broad history lesson, it stops short of offering much else.

Wake up! It’s the 30th anniversary of Spike Lee’s ‘School Daze’ In this #BlackLivesMatter era, the ’80s film is still very relevant

It was late summer of 1986. Jasmine Guy was standing on the streets of New York City, fresh out of a dance class at the Alvin Ailey School, when she heard a word unfamiliar to her: Wannabe.

She’d just run into director and eventual cultural purveyor Spike Lee. She first met him back in 1979, when she was a high school senior and he was a senior at Morehouse College who was directing the coronation at the school where she danced. Back then, he was telling folks that he planned to go to film school and had aspirations of being a director — although, at the time, Guy wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.

Spike had some news for her. “I just finished my first movie, you’ve got to see it,” she remembers Lee telling her. He was talking about 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, which is now of course a lauded Netflix series of the same name. She saw the movie and was mesmerized by the very contemporary piece that was in black and white and dealt with sex, relationships and intimacy. She’s never seen anything like it before. With black people. And she was impressed.

She ran into him again on those New York streets, and this was the time that he added a new word to her lexicon. “I’m doing another movie, and you’re going to be in it, so send me your headshot. You’re going to be a wannabe.” She was confused. “You know how you all are,” she remembers Lee saying. She had no idea what he was talking about. Wannabe.

But she soon learned. As did everyone else who would consume Lee’s epic portrayal of a fictional historically black college in School Daze, a movie that altered how we publicly talked about blackness and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). For the uninitiated, the idea of a “wannabe” was a caricature of (for the most part) a high-yellow, lighter-skinned woman with long hair whose physical attributes look more European than African. “Wannabe” was also an attitude: Wannabe better than me.

School Daze. It’s been three decades to the day since theaters were lit up with a historically black campus waking up — this was when Nelson Mandela was still locked up, and students called for divestment from South Africa. Three decades since Spike Lee brought us a story of conflict, of when students pledging fictional Greek fraternities were pitted against those who desired global and local social change. The Gamma dogs. The Gamma Rays. The Fellas. The Wannabes. The Jiggaboos — oh yes, the Jiggaboos. School Daze was about the tensions between light-skinned black folks and dark-skinned black folks.

Everything was right there on a 50-foot screen. No escaping it. We had to consume it. And address it. “It was like, Wow, this guy’s really going to go there,” says renowned director Kasi Lemmons, whose first film role was in School Daze. “He’s really going to explore these issues. It occurred to me, when I saw it, how important it was because it explored so many things that you just hadn’t seen.”


In so many ways, School Daze was an extension of what was happening on campuses. It tapped into activations that were happening in the mid-1980s, and after it was released, it inspired and engaged other students, amplifying the work that was already taking place.

Darryl Bell — who was one of the “big brothers” in School Daze, his first role — was quite active as a real-life student at Syracuse University. He attended rallies where black and Latino students were mobilizing, much in the same way that Laurence Fishburne’s Dap did on Lee’s fictional campus of Mission College. In real life, Bell pledged Alpha Phi Alpha.

“I wanted to know more about these Alpha fellas,” says Bell. He remembers seeing them at rallies. “The idea that Alpha men were involved in, and on the forefront of talking about, issues that mattered — the divesting of South Africa — it encouraged me to be part of student government. All of these things … my experience at Syracuse, you saw in the film. … We were engaged in voter registration. We put on a fashion show to raise money to give scholarships to high school students. … That was the life I was living. That’s why I was so desperate to be in the movie. … This is all about me and what I’m living everyday. It was an extraordinary example of art imitating life.”

The film was more than entertainment; even before A Different World, it really illuminated HBCU campus life. It shed a light on colorism, one of the most uncomfortable and unspoken issues among black folks — something we’d been battling for generations and, in a lot of ways, still are.

“There was … division between the men and women,” says Joie Lee, who portrayed Lizzie Life in the film, “in terms of what constitutes beauty. I wasn’t ‘fine.’ I wasn’t considered that. I did not fit that standard of beauty, perhaps because I was brown-skinned. Perhaps because my hair was nappy, and natural. The women that are considered fine … were light-skinned or had ‘good hair’ — I’m using that term loosely. Those were some of the issues that [we were] grappling with.”

Thirty years later, the film still holds up. Replace School Daze’s international concerns with the Black Lives Matter movement and the activism, especially in this current political climate, most certainly feels familiar. “It does have a relevance to what’s going on today,” says Kirk Taylor, who portrayed one of the Gammas. “In terms of the look, in terms of the content, in terms of the final message about waking up … we need to wake up as much now as we did then — and stay awake. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, or false peace, and not be aware that things still need to be addressed. Things still need to be changed.”

Stay woke, indeed.

King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ explains the rage over the NFL anthem protests and the persistence of racial injustice Re-reading the famous letter today shows how much still needs to change

On Feb. 11, at 8 p.m., The Undefeated will present Dear Black Athlete, a one-hour special on ESPN featuring conversations with athletes and community leaders about social justice. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the program will be taped at Birmingham’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where King spoke and led civil rights marches. Below, we examine the meaning of King’s letter in today’s racial climate.


Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter from Birmingham Jail in a narrow cell on newspaper margins, scraps of paper and smuggled-in legal pads. He had no notes or reference materials. Yet, King’s eloquent defense of nonviolent protest and searing critique of moderation continues to resonate in a nation still divided by race.

In 1963, the letter spoke truth to white clergymen who called him a troublemaker for coming to Birmingham, Alabama, to confront that city’s harsh segregation and racial violence. In 2018, King’s tract stands as a beacon to a new generation of activists impatient with injustice perpetuated less by flush-faced bigots than by the ostensibly colorblind institutions that structure our society.

King’s letter famously said creating tension was necessary to the work of nonviolent protesters, and that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” He called out the white church for being an “arch supporter of the status quo,” and castigated its ministers for urging members to comply with desegregation because it is the law, not because it is morally right and “the Negro is your brother.” He also expressed grave disappointment with white moderates, whom he described as “more devoted to order than justice.”

The letter was “prophetic,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racial extremist groups. “King really calls out systemic racism and, particularly, systemic anti-black racism. And, of course, it persists today.”

Brooks hears echoes of the white clergymen who accused King of inciting violence in the stinging criticism of NFL players who protested racial inequities by taking a knee during the national anthem.

“What they have done is in the tradition of nonviolent protest. It forces people to have a conversation,” she said. “But the pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ They are like the outsiders that the clergy mentioned in going after King.”

King’s letter was written nearly a decade after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, but Alabama’s largest city operated under its own rules. Black people could not work or try on clothes in downtown stores. They were given used books in separate schools, and made to wait in separate waiting rooms at public hospitals. Those who challenged the established order risked the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan or other terrorists who enforced apartheid so savagely that the town was nicknamed “Bombingham.”

Today, the city is no longer segregated by law, and violent racists no longer run amok. But segregation remains: Many whites fled the city, and its schools are 99 percent black and Hispanic. The city’s poverty rate is more than 30 percent. Then there is the racial wealth gap, income gap, unemployment gap, school achievement gap, incarceration gap and life expectancy gap. It is a story common to many parts of the country.

“The pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ “

Birmingham is now led by Mayor Randall Woodfin, 36, a proud Morehouse College graduate who is among the more than 10,000 black elected officials serving across the country.

“It is hard to read King’s letter and not want to re-reread it and re-read it again,” he said, calling it the civil rights leader’s seminal piece. Not only does it lay out the steps, from self-education to negotiation, that should precede protest, Woodfin said, but it also makes a historical case for why black people are impatient for real change.

“We have black leadership now. But some of the things Dr. King was talking about as it relates to poverty and better education and opportunity, they still exist,” Woodfin said. “We need to be bolder in correcting things we know are not working for many people.”

Better education funding, longer school years, seamless coordination between schools, libraries and recreation centers are some of the things that Woodfin thinks could help. “We are not spending enough time with our children,” he said. “We need to do more with workforce development, that entire pipeline from birth until young people cross that stage.”

But winning support for such initiatives is difficult in Birmingham, much like it is in Detroit or Baltimore or East St. Louis, Illinois. The city alone does not have the wealth to pay for those things, and white taxpayers in neighboring communities do not see problems in places like Birmingham’s as theirs. If polls are any indication, almost none of those white suburbanites see themselves as racist. But they are the present-day equivalent of the moderates King wrote about, minimizing the importance of discrimination in the ongoing struggles of places like Birmingham.

Seven in 10 African-Americans surveyed in a 2016 Pew Research Center poll cited discrimination as a reason blacks have a harder time than whites getting ahead, a view shared by just 36 percent of white respondents. A series of independent studies have found that black people still face discrimination from the criminal justice system, from employers, from real estate agents, and from banks and mortgage companies. Yet, when asked about the racial fairness of institutions fundamental to American life — courts, police, the workplace, mortgage companies — white people are much less likely than African-Americans to say black people are treated unfairly. White evangelicals, who are most prominent in the South, were the group least likely to perceive discrimination against blacks, according to a 2017 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Only 36 percent of white evangelicals reported perceiving a lot of discrimination against black people.

Growing up white in Birmingham, the Rev. Jim Cooley said segregation was a way of life that as a child he never stopped to examine. “It was a different planet then,” said Cooley, who is now pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church. One of his predecessors, the Rev. Earl Stallings, was among the eight clergymen who signed the statement that prompted King’s famous letter.

“I remember seeing separate bathrooms and separate water fountains as a youngster. I guess it was a tribute to my parents that I did not think of it as this is ‘upper’ and that is ‘lower.’ My impression was that there was some natural reason for this that I did not understand.”

Now he knows better, and he thanks King for helping to transform his city. He says the new Birmingham is evident in his own church’s growing racial diversity and the fact that its black organist causes no one in the congregation to as much as raise an eyebrow. He also sees black and white people coming together in civic groups to address the city’s many problems.

Still, Cooley acknowledged that huge racial disparities remain. Some are no doubt the result of Birmingham’s long history of racism, he says. But he thinks the gaps have as much to do with educational shortcomings and social isolation that he said also hinders many white people.

“If I walk around my neighborhood, there is an English couple. A man across the way is involved in the Sons of the Confederacy. There is an African-American doctor. Next to him, an Indian veterinarian and a Chinese pharmacist,” Cooley said. “There is less friction now, for sure. While everything was so drastically race-driven 50 or 60 years ago, now it is about opportunity and education. And that cuts across all kinds of racial strata.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, 67, the longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, grew up in middle-class black Birmingham, as did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, activist Angela Davis and Alma Powell, the wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was a nurturing world of high aspirations tightly controlled by the constant threat of racial violence.

“When we went downtown, we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register,” he recalled. “No police, firemen, nothing. It is hard to understand if you were not there just how dramatically different the world was then.”

Hrabowski was 12 years old when he was arrested and held for five days for taking part in the “Children’s Crusade,” waves of demonstrations that King launched not long after he was released from the Birmingham jail.

“When we went downtown we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register.”

Hrabowski brings the lessons he learned then to his work as president of UMBC, a public university just outside Baltimore. During his more than quarter-century at the university’s helm, he has turned the once nondescript commuter school into one of the nation’s top producers of African-American doctorates in science, technology, engineering and math.

That has not happened by accident. Hrabowski had made it his business to mentor and support black students and those from other underrepresented groups. Hrabowski promotes his school with evangelical zeal and brings at-risk students to campus to help them learn the habits of academic success. He promotes his sharpest science nerds as if they were rap stars, and he singles out basketball players with high grades so they can be seen as both athletic and academic role models.

He shed tears of joy in November when a black woman from suburban Maryland, 21-year-old Naomi Mburu, was named UMBC’s first Rhodes scholar. And when the university opened its new basketball arena and events center last weekend, he made sure Mburu strode onto center court, where she was introduced to the crowd at halftime.

It’s his way of battling the pervasive injustice he once endured in Birmingham.

Hrabowski noted that back when King penned his letter only 2 or 3 percent of African-Americans were college graduates, as were roughly 10 percent of whites. Now, according to the Census Bureau, 23 percent of African-American adults are four-year college graduates, as are almost 37 percent of whites.

“We’ve made tremendous progress since Dr. King’s letter, yes we have,” Hrabowski said. “You want to acknowledge that progress. But a lot of people are left behind, and to solve that we have to look at the unjust policies that Dr. King talks about. Just because it is in the structure, doesn’t mean it is just.”

What do independence and freedom mean to black college students? It’s about music, fireworks and discussion of America and our so-called independence

The Fourth of July has come and gone, but conversations about freedom and independence don’t get old … especially among black college students.

Webster’s Dictionary says freedom is the power to act without restraint, while it defines independence as not requiring or relying on others. How do students feel about the two?

America’s birthday seems to be inextricably tied with fireworks, barbecues and feuds over its significance. Some students simply describe the federal holiday as a day off work. Others joined Chance the Rapper in calling it Malia Obama Day.

When asked about music that inspired or made them think of independence, students spoke highly of songs that encourage economic independence, social justice and hope for black folks:

  • “The Story of O.J.” by Jay-Z
  • “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
  • “Someday We’ll All Be Free” by Donny Hathaway
  • “Revolution” by Arrested Development
  • “The Conquering Lion” by Lauryn Hill
  • “Change” by J. Cole
  • “Glory” by John Legend and Common
  • “16 Shots” by Vic Mensa
  • “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar
  • “F.U.B.U.” by Solange Knowles
  • “Where Do We Go” by Solange Knowles
  • “Candles in the Sun” by Miguel
  • “They Don’t Really Care About Us” by Michael Jackson
  • “Wake Up Everybody” by Teddy Pendergrass

These songs come out of different generations and genres, but the common chord they share is one of unity, equality and perseverance. The beats are so good and the messages are so timeless, this playlist could stay on repeat any day of the week.

Besides music, some college students can point to individuals who are advancing the black community and America at large.

“I think everyone in opposition to the president is actually making America great; Auntie Maxine and Auntie Kamala, I see you!” said Arielle Wallace, 21, a senior at Hampton University.

“Ethnic and social diversity makes America great,” said Demetrius Smith, 36, an alumnus of Morehouse College. “Those outside of the dominant culture hold America accountable to its ideals, which results in slow yet continuous advancement of American society.”

“The charitable donations that Russell Westbrook’s Why Not? Foundation have made to the OKC and L.A. communities has taken another approach other than usual athletes by focusing on education and family service programs while encouraging youth to believe in themselves and ultimately ask, ‘Why not?’ of any situation,” said Jordan Frank, 21, a senior at Clark Atlanta University.

Jenise Williams, 20, a senior at the University of Michigan, sees Independence Day as a time to be with family.

“The Fourth of July is just about me coming together with my friends and family despite all of the craziness of America and the world in general.”

Michigan State sophomore Andrei Nichols questions whether the celebration is premature for people of color.

“For some Americans, it is a time to celebrate freedom that was said to have been granted,” said Nichols, 19. “However, as a black man in America, [I don’t think] freedom was ever granted to people of color. But, hey, what do I know?”

Celebrating America’s independence from British rule may happen once a year, but the fight for individual and collective freedom never stops.

Rodney Walker went from foster care to Yale Author reveals his inspirational journey of trauma and grace

The hard-knock life for author, entrepreneur and inspirational speaker Rodney Walker started when he was 5 years old. He spent the next 12 years in Chicago’s foster care system, until he ran away and ended up homeless for several months.

For much of that time, he was failing in school. But he says education saved his life. He attributes the turnaround to two teachers he met along the way.

Walker, now 27, holds degrees from Morehouse College and Yale University and speaks at schools, corporations and conferences about the importance of education, entrepreneurship, mentoring and philanthropy for nonprofit organizations supporting at-risk youth. His 2016 book, A New Day One, is his story on trauma, grace and his journey from foster care to Yale. Walker told his story to The Undefeated’s Kelley Evans.


Education saved my life

I graduated from Morehouse in 2012. I graduated from Yale Divinity School in 2014 with a master’s degree in ethics.

As a result of leaving the foster care system, I lost benefits of independent living. I lost benefits to get college scholarships through the foster care system. I lost all those privileges because of my actions.

When I moved back in with my parents, thinking it was going to be kind of a fairy-tale situation, I realized that my parents were deeply struggling with drug abuse, substance abuse, to the point where they would steal money from me and they would wake me up out my sleep and ask me all these things, and I couldn’t concentrate or focus on school. So I literally had to leave my parents’ house and just basically couch surf at friends’ places, and ended up at a homeless shelter for about three months of my life.

The turning point that transformed my life was when I was in detention. I was in detention like probably once or twice every week. We had a new dean in our high school [ACE Technical Charter High School in Chicago], Michael McGrone Sr., and he was the person that literally focused on the social-emotional aspect of my life experience.

We focused on homework, we focused on studying, we focused on just getting our life together, our academics together, so we can figure it out. But in that detention, he focused on none of that. His main objective was to focus on the social aspect, the post-traumatic stress disorder. He believed that by taking the time and energy to do that we would perform at our greatest. He wanted to hear nothing about excuses and about how I came from homelessness and foster care and things like that. He wanted to focus on how this affected me on an emotional level and on a social level.

He believed that by getting me to that breaking point to forgive and let that stuff go, then I would actually focus on myself and my lifelong learning so it would transform my life. The sacrifice that he made to really put that time and attention into me and these other kids in detention, it came at an incredible price. And most people don’t understand that, and that’s why I hate using the word ‘mentorship’ because it’s so watered down, because mentorship sounds like profession. He sacrificed in his marriage; I mean, he got divorced about a year after the program was over. … He had a wife and two children at the time at home that he, literally, not neglected intentionally but neglected by default because he was so passionate about his work.

The second person before that was a math teacher, Melanie Vaughn. And she took on the mother role that my mother couldn’t be for me because my mother was a struggling drug addict. … My math teacher was the first teacher that ever really gave me the time and attention and the energy and the support that I needed outside of school. So she was my math teacher from 9 to 10:30, whenever my class period was, but after school we would sit in our classroom, we would just talk about things I really wish I would have talked about with my own mother. She was my advisory teacher as well as my math teacher, so I had her at 14 until I graduated high school.

I think what’s overlooked so much is that when people succeed, they always look at the work that they’ve put in without looking on the back end, about the people who put in that honest investment to them, who gave them that love and that time and that energy and that support to get to where they are. I never really emphasize the hard work because hard work is just … I could be working towards anything, but somebody somewhere, and I always remind myself of this, somebody somewhere changed my mind to do what I do today. And when I look back and think back, I think about those people.

The struggle was real

I was struggling all through grade school. I was diagnosed with mild autism in the first grade. And thankfully my mother didn’t allow me to take psychotropic drugs because she didn’t believe in that, so I didn’t. But all throughout my grade school I struggled with reading. … When I was a freshman I had made a 1.3 GPA, then in my sophomore year I had made a 1.6. And that was half the result of just not being able to master the high school material, but the other half of it was because of social-emotional trauma. It was really because I was distracted, because I was coming to school every day, I was walking like a mile and a half to school because I didn’t have bus fare to get to the school from home, despite the fact that I had a foster parent making money from foster care who didn’t invest in transportation for me to get to school.

But the fact also that I went some 10, 11 years without my parents, without my eight brothers and sisters, and I was really sort of devastated by that. And every day when I went to school I was so distracted I didn’t care about the work. So my fail grades were the result of both of those things, not being prepared and not actually caring enough to do the work because I had so many other distractions. My junior year I had a 2.4, so it was the first time in a long time I actually had made over a 2.0 GPA. … And then in my senior year when I met my dean, who did a lot of that social-emotional counseling and trauma recovery kind of work with me, that’s when I was able to literally steel myself, let all that stuff go, let the baggage go, really focus on my learning.

Getting into Morehouse

I earned a couple of scholarships to college, but Morehouse at that time was about a $40,000-a-year institution. I got about $10,000 in scholarship money, and the rest of it I had to get a loan. So I took out a huge loan in my first year. Also, the problem was that I came into Morehouse on academic probation because my grades were so low that I wasn’t eligible for regular admission.

That first year I would say was my hardest year of any academic semester I’ve ever had in school because I came in on a huge learning curve. At that time I don’t know what reading level I was reading at, but I couldn’t master the college material, so I had to take all remedial classes that first semester. And every week I would get calls from my teacher and my dean. They would call me every week, see how I was doing. One time my dean took a trip down to Atlanta to check on me and things like that, and whenever I needed help and support they would call me and make sure I was in the library, or make sure I was with a tutor, and kind of getting myself back together.

Road to Yale

I wasn’t even sure if I would get into Yale. … I kind of put myself out there to take the risk and to just believe that I can do something I wasn’t sure I can do. So that really came as a result of that mentorship piece. Just that breakthrough moment and instilling in me that I can be my best self and I don’t have to live as a byproduct of my post-traumatic stress. I can actually live and triumph in spite of that, and I think that’s really what his biggest goal was in trying to help me through my circumstances.

Chicago then and now

I have a love-hate relationship with Chicago. Actually, I did return back to Chicago to partner with the former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on a jobs program for at-risk youth in the city. I’ve been here in Chicago for several months now.

… I love the city for what it can do. Like, what it has the potential to do for young people. But the problems that we have, there is literally a deep sense of hopelessness. … The social and the political climate of this city has taken a toll on the black community in a way that I think most people can’t articulate.

I work in public schools every single day, and I see the toll that it takes when teachers don’t have the materials that they need and when the infrastructure and buildings are being broken down, when kids are not coming to school because of truancy and they’re getting locked up for being truant to class. And child abuse cases are happening at our schools everywhere as a result of single parents who are going through that post-traumatic stress disorder that is unmet, unneeded, because they don’t have the money or the resources to do it, and the kids are literally walking from school back to home, where they’re dealing with all these social systemic elements, for poverty, gang element, drugs, that literally the city refuses to address. But instead they reinvest in our neighborhoods in a way that is counterproductive to hopes and the restoration that young people in these communities need.

Instead, they’ll build facilities that literally can entertain an international market when there’s a huge deficit at home in these neighborhoods that is going unmet and unaddressed. So really I love Chicago with a passion, but I understand that those who are less fortunate are not having their needs met in a very severe way.

Family life

I have eight siblings. I am the fourth youngest; I have a younger brother and two younger sisters.

… My parents were together, and literally their life was kind of just all over the place. I think the main thing that made their life so dysfunctional was obviously their substance abuse and addiction. When we were born, my parents were just making the shift from public housing and they got a place on the West Side of Chicago, which is where I was born. And then they moved from the West Side to the South Side, and they were still dealing with this drug addiction, drug abuse and addiction. And at 5 years old, my father was incarcerated for selling drugs in Chicago, and then that really spiraled into me and my siblings going into foster care at that age. My parents fought in court, but my mother was so emotionally torn that she couldn’t get to the court proceedings, she couldn’t get through the parental classes and the substance abuse classes.

That early half of my experience in foster care was actually with siblings, with relatives of my parents. A combination of their social-emotional trauma, my father’s a byproduct of the Vietnam war, so he was never able to get over his heroin addiction and his post-traumatic stress disorder.

My book – A New Day One

I really wanted to write the book for a couple of reasons. The first reason is because I have been telling my story to young people in schools as early as my sophomore year at Morehouse College. And every time I told my story, people would come up to me and say, “My God, that was really great what you said, I wonder if you have a book.” So that’s really what encouraged me to write the book, because I had been journaling before that, but I’d never had a book. And then I met a publisher a few years later after that, worked with me to write the book.

Big-time college athletes should be paid with big-time educations Before we discuss paying college athletes, let’s make sure they get a real college education

Education should be the college athlete’s greatest compensation.

Not a slice of the billions of dollars paid for TV rights for their games. Not a pay-for-play contract like their NBA and NFL brethren. The biggest crime in college sports isn’t that the system is rigged against paying college athletes, it’s that money-worshipping American culture is set up against educating them.

The clamor to pay players arose anew this week when North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams earned $925,000 in bonuses after his team won the national championship. “The players got awesome T-shirts and hats,” observed Associated Press sports writer Tim Reynolds in a viral tweet.

The NCAA collects $1.1 billion per year from CBS and Turner for broadcast rights to the basketball tournament. ESPN pays $470 million annually for the College Football Playoff. Conferences and individual colleges make additional millions during the regular season. Many have compellingly argued for years that, morally and legally, the players deserve to pocket some of that windfall.

They do. But our Money Over Everything society is minimizing or ignoring what’s currently within its grasp, which should last far longer than a six-figure revenue-sharing check.

Right now, college players receive up to six figures’ worth of higher education, plus the life-changing opportunity to elevate intellect and character. Yes, athletes are too often pushed into fake classes to keep them eligible, as in the infamous North Carolina academic scandal that threatens the Tar Heels’ championship, or hindered from serious study by the 40-hour-per-week demands of their sport. But these athletes, and generations of their descendants, would benefit more from reforming their educational experiences than from extra cash.

Let’s look at what those North Carolina ballers receive from their athletic scholarships.

Start with four years of tuition, fees, room and board that total $80,208 for in-state students and $180,536 for those from outside North Carolina. Add the benefit of a diploma from a top institution with an influential and passionate alumni network. UNC is nationally ranked the No. 5 public university and the No. 30 college overall. The name “North Carolina” on LinkedIn or a resume opens doors and gets phone calls returned — and that’s without including “2017 NCAA champion.” And for the majority of UNC players who won’t make NBA millions, lifetime earnings for college graduates are 66 percent higher than those with just a high school diploma. That can be worth more than an additional $1 million.

Then there are the intangibles.

“People ask all the time why I’m one of the youngest college presidents in the country, and one of the only African-Americans leading a private national university,” said Chris Howard, 48, who leads Robert Morris University in suburban Pittsburgh and played football at the Air Force Academy. “I credit a big chunk of that to my experience playing college athletics. I know it sounds kind of cliché, but attention to detail, discipline, teamwork, resiliency, learning how to deal with others, deal with people that are of different backgrounds. It was just a melting pot. It was a leadership lab for me.”

After finishing college, Howard flew helicopters, served in Afghanistan and Liberia, became a Rhodes scholar and got a Harvard MBA. “All those intangibles kind of laid the path. The path was laid by playing D-I football first,” he said.

Rather than an unfair burden, Howard sees the demands placed on college athletes as a down payment on a successful future.

“You’ll be a better human being when you learn to handle that load,” he said. “You’ll be a better father, better husband, better brother, better sister. You’ll be a better professional as an engineer, a lawyer, a doctor, a business manager.”

The pay-for-play crowd loves to holler, “Intangibles don’t pay the bills.”

College athletes certainly should receive enough compensation to cover living expenses. Their families should travel free to games. Some sort of trust fund sounds fair. But the intangible value of higher education is worth more than pizza or gas money.

Martin Luther King Jr. described it while a student at Morehouse College:

“Most of the ‘brethren’ think that education should equip them with the proper instruments of exploitation so that they can forever trample over the masses,” King wrote in 1947 at age 21. “Still others think that education should furnish them with noble ends rather than means to an end.”

“Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education,” King wrote.

The real problem is, too many athletes are blocked from coming within a Hail Mary of that ideal.

“I would suggest that a lot of these kids aren’t getting an education. They’re just sitting in class,” said Leonard Moore, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who is founder of the Black Student-Athlete Summit.

Moore has tutored, counseled and mentored athletes while teaching at Ohio State, Louisiana State and now Texas. He says most big-time athletes are limited to easy majors and prevented from taking advantage of many educational benefits because “revenue-generating sports are now year-round enterprises.”

“You can’t take a class after 1 o’clock. You can’t study abroad in the summer. You can’t get an internship on Wall Street or Silicon Valley,” he said. “The question then becomes how do these student-athletes take advantage of everything that a place like Texas or UCLA has to offer? I would argue that it monopolizes all their time. The only thing they can do is go to class, go to work out and then go lift, and then go to the meeting and then go to class.”

“I never understood why a football team has to practice in February when their first game of the season is in September,” Moore said.

Money is the biggest reason.

The University of Texas football team generated $121 million in revenue and a staggering $92 million profit in 2015. The business of college sports is so entrenched, Moore doesn’t believe it’s possible to make the players real students again.

“Just because you value education doesn’t mean [the athlete] values it,” he said. “If it’s basketball that got me on an airplane, that’s taken me to another state, that’s taken me out of the country, you know what I’m saying? Basketball has definitely helped me move forward in life. You say a four-year education, that doesn’t mean anything. That’s important in your value system, but it ain’t important in mine.

“Right now, it seems like they value the money and that we all value the money,” Moore continued. “That’s the athletes. That’s the university. Our society values the money, and so we say, ‘Look, they need to be paid. We need to pay them, pay them, pay them.’ Instead of saying, ‘We need to educate, educate, educate.’ ”

Efforts are being made. Over the past 15 years, graduation rates have risen from 46 to 77 percent for all black NCAA basketball players, and from 76 to 94 percent for white players. The NCAA gave Division I schools $45 million last year for academic programs and services.

But ballplayers can still get a sociology degree in three years while reading just one book. The clamor for cash still prevails. Demanding short-term gratification feels better than pursuing long-term goals.

A starting point for reform would be guaranteeing athletic scholarships for four years, instead of one, and providing free tuition, room and board for as long as it takes ex-players to graduate. Freed from the demand to produce revenue, these young athletes could finally obtain the incalculable benefits of a real college education.

Capitalism dictates that college players be paid fairly for the entertainment they provide. If money is life’s ultimate goal, the buck stops there.

Or here: “Capitalism is always in danger,” King said, “of inspiring men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.”

What do HBCUs think about the visit with President Trump? The Rhoden Fellows, our correspondents on six campuses, tell us what university presidents and students are saying

The Rhoden Fellows Initiative is a two-year training program for the next generation of sports journalists from historically black colleges and universities, headed by former New York Times award-winning columnist and Undefeated editor-at-large William C. Rhoden. The fellowship – established as part of The Undefeated’s mission to develop new voices and serve as an incubator for future multicultural journalists – is open to outstanding undergraduate students at HBCUs.

Through the lens of sports, the fellows will produce stories about race, class, and culture and serve as campus correspondents for The Undefeated. There are six students in the inaugural class: Miniya Shabazz, Grambling State University; Kyla Wright, Hampton University; Paul Holston, Howard University; C. Isaiah Smalls, Morehouse College; Simone Benson, Morgan State University; Donovan Dooley, North Carolina A&T.

Below are reports on what’s happening on their campuses in reaction to the White House visit by HBCU presidents and President Donald Trump’s executive order on HBCUs. C. Isaiah Smalls’ report about Morehouse College is a separate story.


Hampton University

Hampton University students had a lot to say.

“I feel that the executive order on HBCUs was a ploy to gain interest from the black community,” said Victoria Blow, a junior and strategic communications major from Franklin, Virginia. It was difficult for students to find authenticity and a sense of genuineness in the invitation to HBCU presidents, she said, especially after hearing that President Donald Trump referred to the HBCU presidents as “you people.”

“[President] Trump meeting with HBCU presidents reminds me of ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’ speech by Malcolm X … Trump wants to sugarcoat his bigotry to the HBCU presidents,” said Daryl Riley Jr., a sophomore and electrical engineering major from Newburgh, New York. Riley referred to an excerpt in the speech, saying, “… the first thing the [white racist] does when he comes to power, he takes all the Negro leaders and invites them for coffee, to show them that he’s all right …”

Hamptonians expressed concerns about what went on at the White House.


Despite reports, Morehouse president hasn’t been fired over Trump statement


Students admired Morehouse College president John S. Wilson for releasing a statement about the events with Trump and his administration, and were disappointed they had not seen a statement from their university president. “I would have liked [President William R. Harvey] to reassure us that he and the other university leaders would hold Trump accountable for delivering what he claimed he would do in the executive order,” said Aris Fulton, a sophomore communicative sciences and disorders major from Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I run Hampton like a business, for educational objectives. I do what I think is best, I do what I think is right. I always have and I always will,” said Harvey. Though he doesn’t plan on sending out anything to students, Harvey said that he does intend to send something to Hampton alumni. In regards to remarks made by other university presidents about the visit, Harvey said that he thinks that they were either “uninformed, naïve or disingenuous.”

Harvey has been to the White House more than 200 times during his 39-year presidency and said he’s familiar with these presidential meetings. “If they were expecting to go into the Oval Office and query the president, then that was a false expectation. That doesn’t happen.” Harvey thought that the conference went well, considering that they met with the president, vice president and top advisers to the president. Harvey went on to say this meeting with a majority of HBCU presidents was monumental and to his knowledge, it was the first time that all of the HBCU leaders met in one room – usually it is one or two presidents along with other HBCU representatives.

While many students were upset about the idea of the visit, others remained optimistic. They said they are hopeful that Trump’s administration can follow through with his plans for HBCUs and that the universities’ executive leadership can stand behind him for the greater good of their higher education.

“Regardless of your political views, or views on Trump in particular, it is important to create dialogue about what our HBCUs need in order to continue to succeed. Therefore, I am not against our president, Dr. Harvey, or any other HBCU presidents visiting the White House,” said Warren Hill, a senior finance major from Cincinnati. “President Trump has promised to do more for HBCUs than any other president. However, it is hard to stay optimistic in light of Trump’s many contradictions … as well as Betsy DeVos’ recent misinformed comments regarding the legacy of HBCUs.”

“Give more scholarships to youth who decide to attend HBCUs. Work hands-on with student leaders on campuses, create more internship opportunities for our students within the government … how about that?” said Brittany Daniels, a sophomore marketing major from Queens, New York.

Grambling State University

“It was significant regardless of who the president is. The fact that we as a collective group of such large numbers were there at the same time was historic and significant,” said Grambling State University president Richard Gallot.

During his visit, discussions focused on the White House Initiative on HBCUs being moved back to the White House from the Department of Education, the expansion of access to Parent PLUS loans, investment in school infrastructure, and a reinstatement of year-round Pell Grants. This would benefit Grambling because approximately 90 percent of Grambling students are eligible for Pell Grants.

He emphasizes that patience is key.

“Coming from a legislative background, these kinds of things take time. If anybody had an expectation that we would go to Washington and all go home with a check was not a realistic expectation on how this process works,” said Wilson.

Taylor Stewart showed a special interest in these meetings because there is already a lack of funding for higher education in Louisiana. “The biggest thing that concerns most HBCU students is the funding of HBCUs as far as Pell Grants and making sure that they will be able to have the financial aid to last them all four years,” said Stewart, GSU’s Miss Covergirl and a public relations major from Columbia, Maryland.

Stewart, 21, believes actions speak louder than words. “I appreciate that Gallot went to the meeting because you should always want to meet the person in charge, but I don’t feel that it was beneficial.”

When Gallot met Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), he saw why it was important for him to establish relationships. The senator told Gallot that he grew up as a big fan of legendary Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson and the Bayou Classic football game. “Who knew that a senator from Florida was a fan of coach Eddie Robinson at the Bayou Classic?” said Gallot.

Gallot did not accept the invitation until he spoke with the student government president, the alumni association and the faculty senate.

Grambling State University’s president is looking forward to the possibility of more funding for HBCUs and the fulfillment of Trump’s promise to make HBCUs a priority.

“I think it was important that President Gallot went so that our university can have a voice at the table. I do hope that something positive comes out of the meeting so that it can benefit our university. I’m a little on the fence about this executive order because what we see from Trump already as a president, however I want to remain optimistic and see how it goes,” said Endiah Green, the White House Initiative’s HBCU All-Star from Gambling State University.

“I think it’s really important that Gallot did go because he was trying to push for the betterment of HBCUs,” said senior Breonna Ward, 21, an elementary education major from Dallas.

“It’s important that he and other HBCU presidents went just to fight for us, let them know that we’re there and see what we can do to better ourselves fundingwise. … The things that we can do with the little money that we have is amazing, so just think of the things that we can do if we had money to actually afford to do it.”

Ward said she was aware that a lot of people opposed Gallot going to the White House. “I’d rather somebody go and hear what somebody has to say whether you agree with it or not than not go and not have a voice at all,” said Ward.

“It helps with trying to get Trump possibly on the same page and to see what his ideas were for higher education of African-Americans,” said senior Allen Mays, 23, a double major in history and mass communication from Little Rock, Arkansas. “Trump was trying to appease the people and there is no weight behind it yet.”

Howard University

Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick attended the White House meeting, but according to Frederick, his presence was brief.

“My schedule is driven by the university’s priorities and as such, I was only able to attend a short portion of the White House meeting and could not be present for the discussions with the Secretary of Education and the vice president,” said Frederick. “I also could not attend the congressional symposium. Consequently, I cannot report firsthand on the outcomes of those sessions.”

And while Frederick did not stay at White House during the entire duration, Howard students expressed differing views on his recent decisions to align himself with the Trump administration.

“While I understand the scope of people’s distaste about HBCU presidents meeting with Trump, one must understand that several of these schools are privately and federally funded. So establishing some type of relationship is integral in its well-being,” said Malcolm Friday, a senior electrical engineering from Richmond, Virginia.

“I don’t expect anything to come from this HBCU executive order … especially given the bigoted behavior that Trump’s presence has brought,” said Collin Scott, a junior computer engineering major from Memphis, Tennessee.

Since his private meeting visit with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on Feb. 9, Frederick has met with resistance from some student activists, including Concerned Students, 1867, who after DeVos’ visit released a list of six demands on Feb. 12, that included a call for Frederick and Howard to “ban” Trump from university buildings.

Recently, graffiti and vandalism were found on across campus accusing Frederick of being a “Trump Plantation Overseer” as well as claims of the HBCU initiative “coonin’ ” for Howard. HU Resist also interrupted Howard’s 150th Charter Day Convocation on March 2, making a statement on their right to protest and asking Frederick which side was he on.

“The concerned students of HU Resist are here today to deliver a message,” said a HU Resist member with a megaphone. “President Wayne Frederick, someone might have convinced you that money is more important than people. We are asking you in this moment to choose us — to take a stand for us and to do right by us.”

Here’s what others at Howard had to say:

“In terms of Howard President Frederick meeting with President Donald Trump, I feel as though it makes sense to a certain degree. Whether people agree with his methodologies and thoughts, he is our commander in chief, and we have to work to the best of our abilities to make it work to our advantage despite everything else that is going on. Furthermore, I feel like the executive order may be beneficial after further research, but it is being taken for purely face value now,” said Tariq Johnson, a junior chemical engineering major from Atlanta.

“I believe that President Frederick wasn’t wrong in meeting with President Trump. He simply wanted to listen to what Trump’s administration wanted to say/propose to HBCUs, not blatantly follow their orders. I think a couple of Howard students responded extremely to the meeting and their response is not a representation of the attitude of the Howard community,” said Bakare Awakoaiye, a junior biology major from Oakland, California.

“Obviously, it’s a volatile situation and HBCU students are caught in a difficult position. Firstly, we have to acknowledge that Trump has been openly and subtly racist in the past. But, running a university goes past being a social justice warrior, and sometime you have to make moral sacrifices for the sake of business,” said Jabarri Charles-Barnes, a junior economics and sports management double major from Trinidad and Tobago.

“As a student of an HBCU, I feel a sense of pride with the executive order to place emphasis on HBCUs and acknowledge their importance. And I therefore believe it makes sense for President Wayne Frederick to meet with President Donald Trump in order to develop pleasant relations,” said Kirsteph Cassimire, a junior chemistry major from Trinidad and Tobago.

“I don’t expect anything to come from this HBCU initiative. Especially given the bigoted behavior that Trump’s presence has brought,” said Collin Scott, a junior computer engineering major from Memphis, Tennessee.

Morgan State University

The campus erupted into debate after President David Wilson attended the meeting with Trump administration officials.

“After consulting with students, alumni, and faculty, I decided to go,” said Wilson.

“I wanted to make sure the Trump administration had an appreciation for historically black colleges and universities of this nation to make sure they knew the talent from these schools have enabled America. And I did not want any alternative facts being said,” said Wilson.

Some students questioned Trump’s intentions for the meeting.

“It was valuable for him to go, but you never know their true intention, it’s like making a deal with the devil in my eyes,” said freshman Dasia Bailey.

How would it benefit students and advance the needs of the campus?

“I don’t know what it’s going to take to get the money or representation that we deserve, but this certainly was not enough,” said senior Zanha Armstrong.

Another student was suspicious that Trump was using these distinguished black men and women just for a photo opportunity.

“Immediately, I thought it was nothing but a photo op on Trump’s end,” said senior Tramon Lucas. “I did not think at all that there was going to be anything meaningful behind it. But as far as President Wilson, to talk about the conversation, you have to go and be about the conversation.”

Said senior Lorenzo Moore, “Just them meeting with President Trump is a start of something, it’s better than nothing.”

North Carolina A&T

Spring break at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro began last Friday.

But associate vice chancellor for university relations Todd Simmons told Fox8.com, “There are discussions that we need to have around resources that have typically flown to predominantly white institutions more abundantly than they have to HBCUs, so that has created inequalities over generations that have significantly disadvantaged places like this.”

Track standout Aaron Deane had an intriguing opinion regarding chancellor Harold Martin’s attendance at the HBCU presidents’ meetings. “I feel that the chancellor is furthering himself out of touch with the students he serves. First, he requests for tuition hikes for the last four years, now he’s meeting with the most opposed [person] by the black community in the 21st century.”

Deane’s teammates Ron Cubbage and Derrick Wheeler had different sentiments, however. “I feel like this is a good meeting for the president considering he may not know the importance of HBCUs and our chancellors can bring notice to him. Although we are not sure it will work, it is worth a shot,” said Wheeler. “I would like to see more funding allotted to HBCUs so that we can grow as an institution with our campuses and scholarships. Trying to give the same opportunities given at PWIs [predominantly white institutions] at our colleges.”

Cubbage, a white pole vaulter who does not support Trump, said, “I feel encouraged. We cannot let a man be a deterrent in the pursuit of equality, and academic achievement amongst all people. For the moment, we are stuck with the leader we have, and it is therefore a wise choice for those who might not benefit from his administration to show him that their cause is one of importance and the embodiment of American principles. He may be a man that seems to cause disagreement, but to ignore him is to let any existing disagreement grow into a rift that will become harder to mend over time.”

Daily Dose: 3/3/17 Congratulations, you played yourself

All right, kiddos. Big weekend for the radio squad, if for no other reason than that it portends a big week. We’re doing the show on Sunday per usual, then filling in for Dan Le Batard on Monday. Then Bomani Jones on Thursday and Friday.

The man accused of making threats against Jewish facilities is a former journalist. He’s also a wacko creepstick who decided he was going to make all sorts of dangerous remarks to scare people and get the attention of a woman who had spurned his attention. Dudes are the absolute worst. If you don’t remember, he’s the guy who worked for The Intercept, and thought it was a good idea to make up a source regarding the whole Dylann Roof situation, which was also extremely harmful. Here are the details.

Cincinnati’s Zoo needs some good news. They’re the ones who killed Harambe, setting off an international firestorm over a gorilla that some say was trying to protect a child that fell into its enclosure. If you’re not familiar with Harambe, where on earth have you been? But should we let one extremely unfortunate incident affect the entire reputation of one zoo? Probably, yeah. But now, they’re doing something good. There’s a hippo that was prematurely born there, who is now thriving courtesy of their lovely people. She’s so adorable.

Admitting you got played is not easy. Letting the world know that you put yourself out there, only to be taken advantage of is a difficult thing to do because to some, it admits weakness. But it can be necessary in order to let the rest of us know who’s looking to treat people like that. So, when you saw all those presidents of historically black colleges and universities in the Oval Office for what they thought was going to be something significant, well, you know what happened next. At least Morehouse’s president had it in him to say it openly.

The Los Angeles Rams have serious identity issues. But for now, they’re going back to the white-horned helmets, harkening back to the days of the Fearsome Foursome, which was pre-color TV for the most part. But they’re still holding on to the gold trim of the St. Louis days, which I don’t understand. Why bother? Save some money on the jerseys? Either way, once they get a new stadium, they’ll probably switch up the unis again, which could be great if they ditch the gold entirely. We’ll see. For now, this is what we’ve got.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Condoms are superimportant. Between protecting against sexually transmitted diseases and infections, never mind preventing pregnancy, they’re a hugely important part of public health. And a new company is looking to keep the public part about that alive. Behold, a rubber that’s also a FitBit, in case you need that info.

Snack Time: I don’t know what SXSW is thinking, but they’re about to seriously ruin their already altered brand by apparently threatening artists if they do nonfestival sponsored events this year. Not cool, y’all.

Dessert: Behold. The greatest basketball coach of all time. Happy weekend, y’all.

Don’t forget Dorothy Hoover, another hidden treasure once lost to black history She was a pure math whiz who also helped bring NASA into the aeronautics age as shown in the movie ‘Hidden Figures’

It would have been so easy for Dorothy E. Hoover to have remained hidden.

When the 81-year-old woman died in a Maryland suburb just outside the nation’s capital 17 years ago, she was living alone. Neither her few acquaintances nor her neighbors had any idea whether she had any family. But to ensure Hoover received a proper burial, a few good folks managed to piece together an incomplete portrait of a life they barely knew.

Now, all these years later, the blockbuster book and movie Hidden Figures have filled in some of the remaining gaps.

Those few good folks who knew Hoover at the time of her death were stunned to learn she was one of the first African-American women hired to work as a human “computer” for the nation’s space program, just like the women in the movie. Even more, Hoover was a pioneer among those pioneers.

“Every time I think about it now I get chills,” said Jennifer West, of Bowie, Maryland, who went to check on Hoover one frigid February day in 2000, found her near death, and unexpectedly became her surrogate family. “I feel this beaming happiness. I think it’s because she’s released now … I knew deep down there was more to her story.”

A HIDDEN TREASURE

Hoover isn’t mentioned in the movie, which shot to No. 1 one at the box office with its January release and is now nominated for an Academy Award. But her accomplishments are highlighted in the New York Times No. 1 best-selling book, Hidden Figures, that first told the story last year. Author Margot Shetterly said that while researching NASA’s archives for her book, she uncovered clues that led her to Hoover.

The first clue was a 1951 report about the federal space program’s fair employment practices, particularly at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. The report pointed out that one of the women in the West Area Computing Group, the segregated unit where Hoover and the other African-American female mathematicians worked, had even attained a GS-9 on the federal government’s 15-tier pay scale — very rare for an African-American woman in government at the time.

“That is absolutely insane!” Shetterly said. “I wondered who that could be in 1950. It was like a total mystery.”

Shetterly soon identified that trailblazer as Hoover, who was hired at Langley in 1943 as a professional (P-1) mathematician. She then became the first of the West Area “computers” to leave her group and work directly with a white male scientist — a privilege that generally occurred only at the request of the scientist. By 1946, Hoover was doing calculations for Robert T. Jones, “one of the biggest deals in aeronautics history,” Shetterly said.

Hoover was promoted to shift supervisor, one of three in the West Computing Group, along with Dorothy Vaughan, whose struggle to become a supervisor is chronicled in the movie. By 1951, Hoover had earned the title of aeronautical research scientist and co-authored some technical reports, another thought to be impossible and hard-fought accomplishment.

Then, in 1952, at what seemed to be the pinnacle of her career, Hoover resigned from Langley and returned to Arkansas, her home state, to go back to school.

“Of all the women, she was a pure mathematician,” Shetterly said, surmising why Hoover left Langley. “She was just not into the engineering but really more into theoretical math.”

Hoover earned a master’s degree in physics from Arkansas A&M (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) in 1954 and spent a year working on her doctorate at the University of Michigan in 1955, before moving in 1956 to the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C. She stayed three years and then returned to the space program as a mathematician at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

There, she soared again, earning a promotion to a grade 13 mathematician in 1962, after Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson released a report on minority employment in the federal service. Even Mary Jackson (portrayed on the big screen by Janelle Monae), an engineer who stayed at Langley, hit the glass ceiling at GS-12.

Because Langley was the setting of her book, Shetterly said, there was no way to keep Hoover as a principal character in the narrative, which spans from the 1940s through the Apollo missions of the 1960s.

“But in terms of individual achievement and accomplishments, I was so struck by her and what she had done,” Shetterly said.

TRAGEDY STRIKES

Hoover ended her career at the federal Defense Communications Agency in 1968 after experiencing great personal tragedy. Her youngest child, a son, Ricardo Allen Hoover, whom she had with her second husband, died at just 17 years old in 1967. In 1969, her daughter, Viola Clementine Clarke, her child with her first husband, died at age 22. How Hoover’s children died could not be determined.

By then, Hoover had only sporadic contact with her few remaining family members in Arkansas. “I knew I had an aunt, and I knew what her name was, but there wasn’t much contact,” said Ozaree Twillie, Hoover’s niece, who now lives in Forest City, Arkansas.

Twillie recalled Hoover bringing a young Viola, at age 7 or 8, to visit the family once for several days in their hometown of Hope, Arkansas. Twillie’s mother, Hoover’s sister, had died when Twillie was just 3 weeks old. When Hoover’s parents and only brother also died, her aunt no longer felt connected to Arkansas, Twillie said.

The nieces, which included Twillie’s sister, Joanna Pickett, exchanged occasional letters and telephone calls with Hoover, but they rarely saw one another. Twillie said she didn’t know for years that her aunt had a son, and she learned about Viola Clarke’s death years later when she asked about her in a conversation.

Then one day in February 2000, she got a call out of the blue that her Aunt Dorothy was dead.

That call came from Jennifer West.

West had been summoned by her preschool teacher and mentor in Atlanta, 96-year-old Annie Lou Hendricks, in late January 2000 to go check on an old friend. Hendricks and Hoover had become friends around 1940, when both were graduate students in mathematics at Atlanta University.

Hendricks, now deceased, had even traveled to Maryland to stay with Hoover a few days in 1980. During that visit, West and her sister, Jean Lewis, hosted a luncheon for the two college friends. West recalled Hoover as a dainty, proper Southern lady, who addressed each of the women at the lunch as “Miss” or “Mrs.” and called the gathering a “repast.”

It was the only time that West would meet Hoover before receiving the call 20 years later from Hendricks, who was concerned that her friend didn’t sound well. West called Hoover and promised to visit soon.

“I had a family, and now I’m all by myself,” West recalled Hoover saying.

A snowstorm delayed West’s visit for about a week, and then she called around 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 6, 2000, to let Hoover know she would be there within an hour. Hoover, suffering from congestive heart failure, sounded out of breath.

When West arrived and there was no answer at any of Hoover’s doors, she called 911. Within minutes, paramedics arrived, kicked in a side door and found Hoover collapsed on her kitchen floor. She died the next day.

Suddenly, it dawned on West that she knew nothing about this sweet lady. Even Hendricks, who had considered Hoover a good friend, didn’t know much more than that. And neither did Hoover’s closest neighbors, who had spent time in her home and helped to look out for her. Their responses were the same: Hoover was intensely private. She never talked about her family or her past. At the hospital, where she’d been treated repeatedly, she listed her church as the emergency contact.

Hospital officials told West that the body could stay there just three days. So, working against the clock, West called Hoover’s neighbors and her pastor, and all pieced together what they knew. Lewis (West’s sister) ultimately went to court and got an emergency appointment as Hoover’s special administrator so that the sisters could search Hoover’s home for information.

That’s when they encountered a scrapbook filled with photos and mementos of Hoover’s years as a mathematician. “It was like reading an interesting story,” West said.

Somewhere in the stacks of papers was Twillie’s name.

AN OVERDUE HONOR

A friend suggested West call The Washington Post, which led to a long feature story, titled Searching For Dorothy, published in May 2000.

Many years later, Shetterly would discover that story while following the clues to Hoover.

In January, after the tremendous success of her book and the impending release of the movie, Shetterly was invited to speak at the 2017 Joint Mathematics Conference, which drew 6,000 mathematicians from around the world to Atlanta. She made just one request: that the group honor Hoover in some way.

“I’ve always felt like even though there was no way to include her in the principal narrative of the book, I wanted to do something for her,” Shetterly said.

Ulrica Wilson, an African-American mathematician and professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta, studied Hoover’s work and made a presentation on the complex math Hoover was doing decades ago. “Whenever she was invited into the room, she made a significant contribution,” Wilson said. “That theme resonates with me today … You’re still on the periphery, waiting to be invited in. You have to be ready. ”

For Shetterly, the moment of honor for Hoover was significant. “She got lost in history,” Shetterly said. “We got a chance to honor her and honor her as a mathematician. She was truly honored by her peers. I was just so excited.”

West learned about Hoover’s connection to the movie when a representative of the Joint Mathematics Conference reached out to her for information on Hoover. Both stunned and thrilled, West quickly spread the word to the small group of people who had become Hoover’s family in those hectic days 17 years ago.

“I’m still shocked,” said Warner Crayton, who was Hoover’s longtime neighbor. “I saw the movie, and I was in there thinking, Mrs. Hoover was even before you guys.”

Lewis, the one who became Hoover’s special administrator, said the entire experience has been such a life lesson for her: “If nothing else, it’s enough for people to know, do good in this life. Help other people. All we wanted to do was give her some dignity in her death.”

On this day in Black History: Frederick Douglass dies; Sidney Poitier, Nancy Wilson and Charles Barkley are born Black History Month The Undefeated Edition Feb. 20

1895 — Abolitionist Frederick Douglass dies in the District of Columbia
Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist, lecturer, orator and writer, died in his Anacostia Heights, Washington, D.C., home at 78.

1927 — Happy birthday, Sidney Poitier
Sidney Poitier, who was born in Miami, became the first African-American to win an Academy Award in 1964 for his performance in Lilies of the Field (1963).

1936 — John Hope dies
John Hope was the first black president of Morehouse College (1906) and Atlanta University, the first graduate school for blacks, in 1929. Hope was also a founding member of the Niagara Movement, a predecessor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He died at age 67.

1936 — Happy birthday, Nancy Wilson
Nancy Wilson won Grammys for best rhythm & blues recording for “How Glad I Am, ” best jazz vocal album prizes for R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal) in 2004 and Turned to Blue in 2006. In 2002, the singer won a George Foster Peabody Award for her NPR radio show, Jazz Profiles.

1963 — Happy birthday, Charles Barkley
At the conclusion of his 16-year NBA career, Charles Barkley was one of four players in league history with at least 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Karl Malone. Barkley is now a TNT NBA analyst.