WASHINGTON - Historical Black Colleges and Universities serve a huge purpose and are a source of great pride for the Black community, as well as the entire nation.
Most of these institutions of higher learning were founded during reconstruction years after the American Civil War for former Black slaves and were concentrated in the southern United States. Among the graduates of HBCUs are the U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.
Lt. Col. Byron Coward, director of inspections with the Inspector General's Office, 113th Wing, District of Columbia Air National Guard and HBCU graduate, reflects on how his HBCU experience started at a young age.
“My parents were teachers and Grambling alumni,” said Coward. “We lived on ‘teacher’s row’ where other teachers, who were also HBCU graduates, built their homes. They were our neighbors, church members, babysitters, teachers and coaches. We would actually carpool to football games and homecomings.”
Grambling State is located in Grambling, Louisiana, around an hour's drive from Coward’s hometown of Delhi, Louisiana.
“All three of my older brothers attended HBCUs,” said Coward. “I would sit at home and thumb through all of their yearbooks. By the time I was 10 years old, I knew the name and purpose of every building on campus. I attended football camps and summer academic programs [at Grambling] while in grade school.”
HBCUs were created following the civil war when most southern colleges and universities in the United States did not allow Blacks to attend, while institutions in other parts of the country maintained quotas to limit admissions of Blacks. HBCUs were needed to give educational opportunities to the Black community.
“I must caveat that I was fortunate to have this foundation,” said Coward. “Not everyone does. When you grow up in the South, 20 years after the civil rights era, the ‘isms’ still find a way to seep in. As a child, you are aware, but you can’t put your finger on it.”
Grambling State University stresses the value and importance of each person in the community, exemplified by their motto “Where Everybody Is Somebody.” This motto helped Coward grow as a young man.
“Looking back, the first thing to seep in was programming to give in to a sense of futility and hate for yourself, simply because of color,” said Coward. “Grambling was my counterbalance to that. When I went there as a child, I saw people who looked like me, doing amazing things,” siad Coward. “Therefore, I knew there was a place where success existed, and, in my mind, I could not get to Grambling fast enough.”
In the fall of 1998, Coward enrolled at Grambling State University and began to push himself as a student.
“When I became a Grambling student, I went full throttle,” said Coward. “I just didn’t want to be a number. I wanted the highest grades and to be in student leadership positions. I knew what I wanted, and I committed to being the best at it. Grambling was my university, and I would be Grambling.”
Coward had to make some decisions, as most college students do, on what was best for his future. After deciding against joining the football team, Coward decided to join the Air Force Reserves Officers’ Training Corps.
“As much as I loved playing football and considered walking on, I found something more exciting with a more realistic end goal: prepare, graduate and get out into the global war fight as a professional airman,” said Coward. “More importantly, I wanted to be the best person my family, all those folks on ‘teachers row,’ and my professors knew coming from their institution.”
Grambling Air Force ROTC taught Coward valuable lessons on how to plan, improvise and make do with whatever they had.
“Grambling, like most HBCUs, gives you what you need and not what you think you want. That’s a life lesson, and, in perspective, you are grateful for the blessings you have,” said Coward. “Just like in the military, you may not have enough people, funding or equipment, but you still have to complete the mission.”
Grambling University prepared Coward for success in his various military occupations. When he was a logistics officer, he organized the first deployment and distribution flight. Now, as the director of inspections, he is organizing a readiness exercise.
“I didn’t do any of these things by myself. The DCNG, soldiers and airmen, guided, assisted me; I was just the one responsible and had to lead,” said Coward. “My dean at Grambling told us, ‘We stand tall on the shoulders of giants.’ Now it’s my time to be a giant that someone can stand tall on and prepare them to embrace the challenges.”