On the day of my high school graduation, an article about my life made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Education was His Salvation,” was the headline chosen by the editors. Toward the end of the article, after describing the many twists and turns that defined my childhood, I stated, “All my life I’ve been looking for a place like Morehouse.”
As a first-generation high school graduate, I knew college was necessary. After making the jump from a consistently under-resourced public high school to a more privileged private high school, college went from a pipe dream to real possibility. With the new support I received, I applied to 36 colleges, got into 35, and was waitlisted at one – Brown University.
Soon after reading my handwritten note from then Brown University president Dr. Ruth Simmons (now president of HBCU Prairie View A&M University), I got a call from Rev. Dr. Amos C. Brown, pastor of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church, and alum of the only HBCU to which I applied – Morehouse College.
“There is a local alumni gathering this weekend,” he said. “You should come.”
My sister Tiffany and I attended the barbeque that would change my life forever. The community that gathered there was incredibly welcoming; I awkwardly began introducing myself and engaged alumni on their experiences – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
At the end of the event, the Morehouse Men gathered in a circle, invited me to join them, gripping one hand over the other– right over left. We then began to sway in unison and sang the official Morehouse Hymn, “Dear Old Morehouse.”
Mid-way through the song, I turned and looked at my sister. Tears welled in her eyes at the site of Black men engaging in ritual and embracing a brotherhood. The circle lowered their voices to a whisper, “Holy Spirit, Holy Spirit”. Then, as one voice we belted, “Make us steadfast, honest, true, to old Morehouse, and her ideals, and in all things that we do.” As if affirming each other, the grips tightened and shook.
I was sold.
At the time, attending an HBCU meant going against the norm. My guidance counselors were unaware of the opportunity an HBCU would provide for someone like me. They harped on the difficulty I would have with customer service, facilities, and general support. They said I would also be the first ever in my school’s 50-year history to attend an HBCU.
At the end of the day, I ignored their warnings and accepted the invitation to attend Morehouse – primarily because of the Morehouse Mystique. According to the college, “The Mystique is joining a brotherhood like none other. And after being ignored, stereotyped or marginalized, it’s about finally finding that ‘home’ that, deep inside, you always knew existed, where you are the heart, soul and hope of the community. And where you are not alone.”
I entered Morehouse bright-eyed and excited. To be fair, my first semester had some disappointments. I struggled with the quality of the facilities, the strict nature of the institution, and my perceived rigor of the academics. My Morehouse professors and fellow students implored me to stick it out. I did, and I could not have made a better choice.
The Morehouse Mystique slowly unveiled itself as an experience that went beyond my wildest dreams and expectations. Because of the Mystique, I have traveled to more than 30 countries and became a Rhodes Scholar finalist. I broadened my ideas of what’s possible for my career, challenged myself to achieve not for myself but for the sake of my community, provided me with lifelong friends, and most importantly, allowed me the space to explore my identity without the burden of being the voice for all Black people.
As I reflect on my college experience, I know that Morehouse instilled in me a perspective and obligation that Brown or those other 35 colleges and universities could not. As a Black Man in America attending an all-male, all Black institution, Morehouse challenged me to think beyond the stereotypes, and it eliminated barriers that would have impeded my ability to achieve far beyond my initial dreams as a first generation high school and college graduate.
Morehouse presented me with an educational opportunity that was less about salvation, and more about finding my own inner self. I didn’t need to be saved. I needed to be shown who I truly was and the potential that was already inside of me. That process, of unveiling, understanding, and committing to one’s true potential – that is the Morehouse Mystique.
When I crossed Century Campus to officially become a Morehouse Man, I realized that my experience was not unique. I graduated with 500 other Morehouse Men and stood amongst an empowered network of Black college graduates, reaching the hundreds of thousands.
Like all Historically Black College and Universitys (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges & Universities, women’s colleges, and other mission-oriented and affinity-based institutions, Morehouse is crucial to the work of providing a place and space for individuals to grow and develop without the weight of systemic oppression, microaggressions, and imposter syndrome.
When people ask me whether HBCUs are needed in a post-racial America, I ignore the question and focus on the importance of space and place. Colleges and universities provide the space and place to develop individuals, leaders, and change agents. Variety among these institutions is critical.
For generations of young people to develop that perspective and capability in a place where they feel most “at home” is incredible, fundamental, necessary. This is most important when our society proliferates a belief that cis-gender, white, patriarchal, misogynistic beliefs are normal, and everything else is “other.”
HBCUs arose as a result of institutional racism and systemic denial of equal education. Their existence today is still necessary for the same reasons.
Years after I received my note from Dr. Simmons, I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with her on a panel – discussing the impact, importance, and need for higher education and HBCUs, especially for low-income, underrepresented students. I know I would not have reached that stage without the Morehouse Mystique. Thank you Black colleges.
Ed Smith-Lewis is the executive director of UNCF’s Institute for Capacity Building (ICB), a team dedicated to supporting the resiliency of HBCUs by improving their institutional effectiveness, academic competitiveness, and financial viability. Ed designed and developed ICB’s current and largest program, the Career Pathways Initiative (CPI), which engages institutions in transformative practices to improve student learning and career outcomes. Its primary aim is to scale student-centered strategies that ensure graduates realize the promise of higher education.
Ed has a passion for education and has focused his career on ensuring those that have the furthest to travel on their own educational journey receive the support, encouragement, and engagement needed to achieve their dreams.
Prior to joining UNCF, Ed had a myriad of professional experiences, ranging from nonprofit management to strategic consulting, working at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Howard University, and McKinsey & Company.
He contributes to the Rework America Task Force, serves as an advisor for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions, and for the last ten years has served on the board of the Prescott Circus Theatre in Oakland, CA.
He is a proud first-generation graduate of Morehouse College.