Will HBCUs and Black churches survive?


For the past 18 years, since my retirement as a superintendent of schools and college president, I worship on a rotating basis at five different churches in Daytona Beach (Fla.) for my community involvement.

I was baptized in 1953 at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn. God has been my spiritual guiding force daily. As a public servant, community leader and career educator, my life’s work has been to serve, to give, to support and to mentor our young people.

What happened?

Sunday is still the most segregated day of the week. We African Americans were forced to create our own religious institutions and our Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) because Whites refused to accept or allow Blacks to attend their churches and colleges.

Hundreds of years later, I ask the question, “What happened to our Black churches and HBCUs?”

My generation gave up most of the gains, sacrifices and struggles that our ancestors made to educate us and gave us a place to worship and to be liberated and educated as human beings.

In the past, many Black churches and HBCUs were open seven days a week. This was when they were a viable part of the daily life of the Black community. Today, many Black churches are only open three or four days a week. Our HBCUs close their doors on Friday and open back up on Monday.

There is a huge disconnect between my generation and two to three generations of young people. As a result, the survival of our Black churches and HBCUs is at a crisis stage. African Americans have retrogressed on every front: education, religion, politics, economics; not respecting our elders, not knowing and appreciating our history.

Vacant pews

Today, many traditional Black churches are nearly empty as we worship on Sunday. The advent of the charter and private schools vs. our traditional public schools is one of the many reasons our public schools are eroding. HBCUs are losing Black students to White colleges at an accelerated rate.

Why? Many of our people now attend White churches and White colleges. Obviously, we have forgotten about our history of being denied access to White churches and White colleges. One who cannot protect and invest in its own is one that is doomed to fail.

In Daytona Beach, we have more than 10 Black churches on the same street, nearly next door to each other. Most of them are half-full on Sundays. The religious leaders have very little interaction with each other.

As I attend my five churches on different Sundays, I’ve observed the same requests from all of these Black pastors: “We need members to support the church financially and we need to recruit more people to attend our church because we have bills to pay. We have to maintain our church.”

I’ve seen buses coming in from White churches constantly picking up Black church worshipers and taking them 15 to 20 miles to White churches to attend service. It has been reported that these Black worshipers spend more money at these White churches than they ever contributed at Black churches.

Remember, Blacks didn’t create this dual religious and education system. Whites did, many years ago.

Where’s the support?

Today, we have a number of Black college alumni associations contributing less than $50,000 annually to their respective HBCUs. In the past, Black churches and HBCUs were always able to sustain themselves by being economically and politically endowed. They were in business to sell quality education and to restore souls religiously.

Many HBCUs are church-related, politically, spiritually and economically controlled by Black religious affiliations and Black politicians. They really control the financial resources and oversee the operation of these HBCUs and Black churches.

As a former college dean, vice president, president and chancellor of HBCUs and Predominately White Institutions (PWIs) throughout this country, I’ve witnessed who really makes the final decisions at many of these Black churches and HBCUs.

Sucking them dry

Some of our Black religious affiliations and Black politicians are draining our churches and HBCUs, even though many HBCUs don’t have adequate student enrollment and some Black religious congregations are shrinking. This is an accident waiting to happen.

Several Black religious affiliations and Black politicians are getting their “fair share” or assessment fees off the top. Some Black religious supervisors require of their church congregations to pay an assessment fee on a regular basis; the amount depends on the size of the church. The Black politicians at many HBCUs serve as “lobbyists” or consultants for these HBCUs and demand a certain amount of money per month.

This is part of the overall problem with the survival of Black churches and HBCUs. This does not negate the many religious supervisors who are doing an outstanding job managing and properly utilizing the financial resources for the success of HBCUs and churches. But there are too many that are not.

As I travel throughout the country, I’ve seen a proliferation of Black pastors and Black college presidents. Many Black pastors at churches in Daytona Beach are like a revolving door, in constant change. At our beloved Bethune-Cookman University, there will have been five presidents in 16 years. This isn’t conducive to maintaining the stability, growth and survival of these institutions.

The real reason

It is obvious why our HBCUs and Black churches are struggling to survive: we are not supporting them the way we did decades ago. We are sending our children’s children’s children to White churches and White colleges. I now see HBCUs that are predominately White. I don’t know of any historically and Predominately White Institutions that are now predominately Black. Why not?

Some of us will always have reasons or make excuses, comments and justifications. The real question: “How many of our Black churches and HBCUs will survive?” The future looks extremely bleak.

If we lose our Black churches and our HBCUs, we will certainly lose our Black communities, our Black history and a viable vehicle to educate and minister to our Black children. We have a moral, personal, professional, educational and political obligation to do what’s in the best interest of our people to maintain their survival.

The survival of Black churches and HBCUs is eroding every day. Many of us are sitting idle, doing too little of anything to take corrective measures to stop this catastrophe. We need our Black churches and our HBCUs if we are going to survive as a race of people.

Dr. Willie J. Greer Kimmons is an award-winning educational consultant for pre K-16 and Title I schools, teachers and parents. He is also a motivational speaker, author, former classroom teacher, superintendent of schools, college professor, college president and chancellor.


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