When Johnathan M. Holifield talks about future opportunities for HBCUs, he inevitably finds a way to bridge the past to the present, even as he looks toward the future.
For Holifield, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, these storied institutions are national treasures that can undoubtedly attract continued investment because of their competitive edge and assets.
“We preserve national treasures,” says Holifield, sitting inside his office located in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building — home to the headquarters of several high-profile Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence. “However, we invest in assets, things that we believe will offer a return, that will grow over time. Our institutions are both national treasures and competitive assets.”
As Holifield prepares to mark his second year as head of the Initiative in October, the former NFL player, turned lawyer, entrepreneur and civic leader has won widespread praise for his ability to focus attention on HBCUs and forge significant public and private partnerships that have helped to raise the profile of many of these vulnerable institutions.
“I’ll be honest, I wasn’t convinced that he was the right pick at all when I heard that he was the guy who would lead the Initiative,” says one HBCU president who asked to remain anonymous but has been a staunch critic of President Trump. “But I have been pleasantly surprised and impressed. He’s a creative thinker who seems willing to try and experiment with some new approaches and he does not appear to be a partisan hack.”
Since taking the job, Holifield has barnstormed the nation, visiting 14 of the 19 states that have at least one HBCU. In the process, he has participated in conferences, convenings and brainstormed with college presidents and state officials on how best to hone the competitive advantages and spirit of these historic institutions that mostly emerged in the years following slavery.
“Our institutions are the product of a painful history, America’s original sin,” says Holifield. “We shall never forget that. But they also hold promise for a future America where more Americans are achieving educationally and economically, contributing to where we’re going.”
Even so, Holifield “can put us in the game but he can’t play for us,” quipped one college president about the role of the executive director of the Initiative, which was started in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan.
“At the end of the day, the institutions — not withstanding their excellent advocacy organizations — the institutions themselves are their best advocates,” says Holifield. “In some ways, investing in our institutions is kind of like voting. The franchise is a unique instrument, particularly for those who struggle for the franchise. At once, it pays a debt, honors the debt and those struggles, and at the same time, it makes an investment in the future. That’s what our institutions are. They honor the past, but there is an expectation of future return to our nation as well and that’s a unique kind of characteristic.”
The HBCU impact
Although Holifield never attended an HBCU, he came to learn much about the value of these institutions, primarily from his grandfather, the Reverend Lieutenant Beecher Campbell, Sr.
In his hometown of Romulus, Michigan—the small city sandwiched between Detroit and Ann Arbor — Holifield listened as his grandfather recounted his experience in the early 1900s working on the grounds of what was then Tuskegee Institute, the agricultural college founded by Booker T. Washington.
Although the self-taught preacher never enrolled at Tuskegee, he developed an acquaintance with Washington and when the Great Migration took hold in 1920, he headed north to Michigan in search of a better life and more opportunities.
“Without the presence of then-Tuskegee Institute, what would my grandfather have done? Would my family be here?” asks Holifield. “And that’s part of the less-known story of a kind of diaspora impact that our institutions have had. We less appreciate this multiplier, this exponential impact of having these institutions in our history and what they enabled far beyond the classrooms. It’s a wonderful complimentary narrative of impact.”
There was an expectation that Holifield and his brother and cousins would go on to pursue a college education. In fact, Holifield’s two aunts had gone on to earn advanced degrees and became schoolteachers, while several other relatives became preachers.
As captain of his high school football team, Holifield had his sights on the University of Michigan or Michigan State University, believing that he could compete as an athlete at a Division 1 institution despite his team’s lackluster performance on the field.
“We lost every game. We were 0-9,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “We lost one game, 64 to nothing. We were terrible.”
Despite the losses, his high school basketball coach sent film to West Virginia University of Holifield playing, and the university invited the youngster to come to campus as a walk-on.
In January 1983, Holifield boarded a Greyhound Bus in Detroit to make the six-hour trek to Morgantown, West Virginia.
“I’m going to get you a roundtrip ticket in case this doesn’t work out,” Holifield recalls his mother telling him before he boarded the bus.
Read full via Diverseeducation