As we observe Black History Month, I am reminded of the power that education has wielded in transforming the lives and destinies of Black America.
From the earliest accounts of enslaved Africans in America, it was clear that Europeans recognized this power, and in many slave states, it was illegal—and not just bad practice—to teach members of the Black community to read or write.
These restrictions continued across generations, as Frederick Douglass noted in his autobiography. When a slave master’s wife tried to give Douglass even the most rudimentary instruction, she was reprimanded by her husband, who said it would just make Douglass miserable.
In a way, the slave master was right: Douglass developed a thirst for knowledge, and his pursuit of learning opened his eyes to his seemingly inescapable plight. He became miserable—and that misery fueled his determination to gain his freedom.
At the turn of the 20th century in America, two giants of history—Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois—were deeply engaged in a philosophical debate over the kind of learning that would most effectively change the future of Black America. However, they were in full agreement that education was the critical factor that would empower Black Americans to take their rightful place in society.
Breaking Down Barriers to Education
As the 20th century unfolded, Black students and other members of African American communities across our nation continued to encounter obstacles to education—obstacles that were often underpinned by racism or structured to affect racial segregation.
In his autobiographical novel, Black Boy, for example, Richard Wright described how, in order to get a library card, he had to resort to fraud.
Countless Black teachers and leaders in the Black community have dedicated their lives to breaking down the barriers that have prevented minority students from accessing the full power of education.
Malcolm X changed the trajectory of his life, while in prison, by starting to read a dictionary, beginning with the word aardvark—and his life, in turn, touched millions.
With just $1.50 and formidable determination, Mary McLeod Bethune established a school for African American girls in Florida, building benches and desks by hand from discarded crates. That institution would eventually form part of Bethune-Cookman University, with Bethune serving as its first president.
And Ruby Nell Bridges was just six years of age when she risked her life to help challenge the system of segregation designed to exclude her from New Orleans public schools.
While the characters, costumes, and settings may change, in many ways Black America still finds its path to equity must be through education. The work continues today.
Leveraging Education to Fight Systemic and Institutional Racism
The 2016 Netflix documentary 13th—which garnered renewed interest after the deaths of Ahmad Arbery and George Floyd rocked the nation—was especially clear in tracing the historic roots of slavery into the modern corporate prison system, with all its associated racial implications. This is why I advocate for second chance Pell grants for prisoners. It is a tragedy that the world’s wealthiest country also incarcerates the highest percentage of its citizens. It is nothing less than an abomination that so little is done to change the trajectory of those lives and the nature of prison.
This being Black History Month, I have focused here primarily on Black America, but the challenges I have outlined here are not defined by racial boundaries. One reason Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s thought evolution is so powerful is because his speeches and actions show that, while Black life was always central to his purpose, he recognized clearly that social ills are rooted in economics even more than race. He noted, for example, that the poor joined the military in part to change their lives and, as a result, died disproportionately in Vietnam. At the time of his assassination, he was planning the Poor People’s March on Washington.
Not a day goes by here at UMGC when I am not reminded of how our students have come to us precisely because they want to change their lives and see education as the tool—Nelson Mandela would say “the weapon”—to fight the gravitational pull of social factors. Every time I shake the hand of a cybersecurity, biotechnology, or nursing graduate and hear, “It took me many years, but I did it,” I know we have helped another person achieve escape velocity, free to explore their potential and change the world in unforeseen ways.
Ginger Miller—who earned an MS in management from UMGC in 2013 with a specialization in nonprofit and association management—is one such person. A U.S. Navy veteran, Miller struggled in her transition to civilian life, caring for a new baby and for her husband, a fellow veteran who was disabled and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Eventually she became homeless and worked three jobs while studying full-time to help rescue her family from that situation.
Education and determination combined to shift the trajectory of Miller’s life, and she went on to found and serve as president and CEO of Women Veterans Interactive Inc., which has already provided support to more than 8,000 women veterans. She was recently appointed by President Biden to the USO Board of Governors, and in that role, she is sure to touch the lives of thousands more.
I am so proud that education contributed to her success, equally proud to count her among UMGC’s distinguished alumni, and grateful every day to be part of an institution whose mission is to inspire hope, empower dreams, and transform lives ... one student at a time.
Recently, our university was designated a Minority Serving Institution (MSI) by the U.S. Department of Education, recognizing the percentage of minority students we enroll and our commitment to serving populations that have often been underserved in higher education. This continues a historic legacy at UMGC, where classes were fully integrated long before segregation was outlawed by the Supreme Court.
As the fight against injustice and inequality continues, Ginger Miller—along with countless others whose lives have been transformed by education—give us reason for hope. Every wave begins with a drop of water.