RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – An idea that germinated years ago in the North Carolina General Assembly is taking root finally during Black History Month: Legislators are forming an HBCU Caucus to focus on the value and accomplishment of the state’s historically Black colleges and universities.

State Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Greensboro), who said she would co-chair the group with state Rep. Zach Hawkins (D-Durham), said this concept is nothing new.

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NC A&T’s campus (WGHP)

“The whole idea started several years ago with me and other people in terms of wanting to educate legislators, especially legislators who don’t much about them [HBCUs],” Robinson said Friday. “Mostly Republicans and white legislators … to educate them about their [HBCUs’] value to North Carolina.”

One of those other people was 12th District U.S. Rep Alma Adams (D-Charlotte), a former resident of Greensboro who received a graduate degree from NC A&T, and three others who with three other members started the Bipartisan HBCU Caucus after she was elected to Congress in 2014.

Now Robinson has a partner in state Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Whitsett), who she said is the caucus’s deputy chair in the House. Sen. Carl Ford (R-Rowan) is the deputy in the Senate.

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A new HBCU Caucus will focus on the schools and their needs, including the venerable Bennett College in Greensboro. (WGHP)

Hardister said the caucus came to life because of an interaction that he and Hawkins had with the Hunt Institute, the public policy forum created by former Gov. Jim Hunt. Hawkins told The News & Observer that the institute would fund the caucus. Hardister noted the significant impact of the state’s 10 public and private HBCUs. He and Robinson both said that, although NC A&T is the nation’s largest public HBCU and Bennett College is one of its oldest, there’s not nearly enough awareness.

Robinson cited an economic impact study by UNCF that outlined the economic power ($1.7 billion annually) and jobs (15,663) that those 10 institutions wield. “We wanted to make sure people understood that first,” she said.

State Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Greensboro)

NC A&T, with its 14,000-plus students and glossy, high-profile engineering program, and venerable and historic Bennett are a few blocks apart in East Greensboro and within the legislative districts of both Robinson and Hardister.

In the Triad, there also is Winston-Salem State University, which, along with A&T, North Carolina Central, Elizabeth City State and Fayetteville State, is part of the UNC System.

Bennett is joined among private schools by Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, Livingstone College in Salisbury, Saint Augustine University and Shaw University in Raleigh.

State Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Whitset)

Robinson, who has served on the UNC Board of Governors, said the caucus would like to study funding over time, to examine staffing and salaries and programs that have been funded.

“We know there are a lot of disparities and inequities,” she said.

She noted the bond package that passed under former Gov. Pat McCrory in 2016 that provided $2 billion for building on campuses across the state.

“The bond that was done had funding for all universities,” she said. “But we haven’t done that capital analysis [of HBCUs}. We need to make some recommendations to the board, take a total look.”

Said Hardister: “The idea is to bring more awareness to the impact that HBCUs have on our state and to discuss ideas as to why we can better support their mission.”

About that awareness

So as much as ensuring funding, both Robinson and Hardister mentioned that the caucus’ goal is to educate legislators about these 10 schools and expose them to what happens on their campuses.

Robinson said she had visited all 10 of them – and every other college and university in the state – and she shared a story about a member of the Agriculture Committee who attended a meeting at the renowned NC A&T College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences and marveled at what he saw.

“I said, ‘You mean you are chair of the Agriculture Committee and you never had been to A&T?’” she said. “He said no.”

That goes on too much, she said. “If we say we are going to be concerned about education, we ought to know where those universities are,” she said. “We want people to attend [the campuses], especially if there’s one in our district.”

Winston-Salem State University (WGHP)

Said Hardister: “Our goal is to bring a bipartisan approach to supporting our HBCUs, expand access, and help these schools accomplish their goal of delivering a sound, quality education.”

He noted that 50% of the state’s Black educators were graduates of an HBCU. And Robinson pointed to that UNCF study that said HBCU graduates generated $20.7 billion in lifetime earnings.

“A lot of our kids stay right here in this state,” Robinson said. “They are teachers, lawyers, in corporate America, health professionals – we know how much we need nurses. … We want to have a values-driven caucus.”

How to get others involved

Robinson said that ideas continue to percolate, that leaders of the caucus will have a press conference in the coming weeks to discuss their plans and to focus their next steps. She said she is hoping that all legislators who graduated from an HBCU or have one in their district will attend.

But she also admitted that as much as she wanted members of the General Assembly to visit campuses, “You can’t get 150 people on the road. … We hope to have groups and make time [to visit].”

She noted that later this year Bennett College will celebrate its 150th anniversary.

“Bennett is the oldest institution for African-American women in the country, but one of only two,” she said. “We hope our legislators can get involved and attend such events.”