SALISBURY, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Graduation is a celebration of success for every student crossing the stage but for Moquesha Ingram, each step is even sweeter.

“It feels amazing being a first-time graduate and my immediate family,” Ingram said.

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Ingram earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Livingstone College, in Salisbury, North Carolina.

“After graduating, I plan on taking some nursing classes and working my way up in the system to become that pediatric neurologist,” Ingram said.

Livingstone is one of more than 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities across the country.

The majority of HBCUs are in the South, but they range as far north as Pennsylvania and as far south in the Virgin Islands. In the late 1800s, it was illegal for Black Americans to read and write. HBCUs were the first institutions to do it on a large scale.

Dr. Anthony Davis, Senior VP for Institutional Advancement at Livingstone College says HBCUs were the first institutions to educate Black Americans on a large scale.

“There was this period called segregation, where African Americans were not allowed to access mainstream majority institutions, predominately white institutions,” Dr. Davis said. “That’s how these institutions were founded.”

HBCUs came to be in several ways, the federal government established some, others white religious leaders or segregationists started. Livingstone College was a product of African American ministers.

“Members of the AME Zion Church, descendants of freed slaves gave birth to this audacious idea of starting the school,” Dr. Davis said. “They were founded in 1879, that’s shortly after The Emancipation Proclamation and shortly after Juneteenth. The founders had a sneaky suspicion that education would be the true emancipator and not the document that President Lincoln signed.”

Before it was renamed Livingstone, it was Zion Wesley Institute in Concord. The school was moved to Salisbury on a plot of land that was once a slave plantation. Many HBCUs have a similar story about their campus grounds.

“The land that we walk on every day was land that was cultivated by our ancestors, in that institution called slavery,” Dr. Davis said.

Many HBCUs are the sites of important historical events. In 1892, Livingstone held the first Black collegiate football game on the school’s front lawn.

“They didn’t have a football, so they pooled their resources to buy the football. They didn’t have uniforms. The uniforms were made by the industrial arts department on campus. They took their dress shoes drove iron nails or nails through the soles of their shoes so they would have cleats,” Dr. Davis said. “It speaks to the self-reliance and determination of HBCUs.”

The game is now a more than 100-year-old tradition called the Commemorative Classic. The game location alternates between Livingstone’s campus and Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte.

President Jimmy Jenkins says the game is a big source of revenue for the community.

“People come from far and wide to witness these two institutions still playing each other on the one hand,” Dr. Jenkins said. “From the tourist perspective and a destination perspective, we bring in a lot of resources.”

When visitors arrive at the Livingstone campus, it’s almost like walking around a museum. You’ll find the mausoleum, where Joseph Price, the university’s first president is buried.

You see the horseshoe, which is the meeting place of the divine nine sororities and fraternities on campus.

You’ll also notice crumbling buildings, it’s a familiar story on HBCU campuses across the nation.

A report by the Government Accountability Office found nationwide each HBCU is in need of on average $46 million dollars in repairs.

“We have to make decisions. Do we use the resources that we have to try to make sure we can keep the classes going, keep up with the equipment, pay the light bills and things of that nature? Do we try to figure out ways to upgrade the buildings,” Dr. Jenkins questioned. “It’s a hard toss to make.”

Data from the American Council of Education says over a 12-year period, public and private HBCUs experienced the steepest declines in federal funding per full-time student.

“We are far performing way above our means, but we could think of what we could do. If we had the resources to be able to in fact take up the burden and provide extra resources for extra work and extra support,” Dr. Jenkins said.

Congress recognizes the underfunding of HBCUs. In May of 2021, lawmakers introduced the IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act to provide financial resources for long-term improvements. Senator Tim Scott from South Carolina is co-sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

“What we found over the past few years is that the more we focus on HBCUs the more likely we are to see success throughout our country in every corridor,” Senator Scott said. “So what IGNITE does is give us another opportunity to focus on funding our HBCUs.”

Senator Scott said he’s hoping for a vote early this year.

“The future is really bright for our nation because we are putting more emphasis on our historically Black colleges and universities,” Senator Scott said.

HBCUs graduate some of the nation’s top doctors, lawyers, engineers, and more. Students like Ingram say they leave with more than just a degree.

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“It’s a blessing that they can provide education for their students and still be here for so many years. It’s just a blessing to graduate from a historical place,” Ingram said.