With more than a million children orphaned by COVID, faith-based groups look to mobilize support

With more than a million children orphaned by COVID, faith-based groups look to mobilize support

(RNS) — More than a million children around the world may have been orphaned by COVID-19, losing one or both parents to the disease or related causes.

Another estimated 500,000 lost a grandparent or another relative who cared for them.

The numbers are from a new study by researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others that highlight another grim reality in the sweeping devastation caused by the ongoing pandemic.

“These new estimates highlight the tremendous impact COVID-19 has had on children around the world,” said Elli Oswald, executive director of the Faith to Action Initiative.

Members of the Faith to Action Initiative, a coalition of faith-based child welfare organizations that includes Bethany Christian Services, World Vision and other nonprofits and ministries, responded this week to the study published Tuesday (July 20) in The Lancet, encouraging Christians to mobilize to care for those children and support surviving family members.

“We know when families are supported during these tragic times, they can provide the love and care a child needs to thrive. The church is best placed to respond to the needs of these children as it carries out the vision we see in scripture of God’s intention for family, and ensures that a child never needs to be placed in an orphanage,” Oswald said.

Researchers from the CDC, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank and the University College London used COVID-19 mortality data from March 2020 through April 2021 and national fertility statistics for 21 countries to offer the first global estimates of the number of children orphaned by the disease.

Their methods were similar to those used by the UNAIDS Reference Group on Estimates, Modelling and Projections to estimate the number of children orphaned by AIDS.

“Orphanhood and caregiver deaths are a hidden pandemic resulting from COVID-19-associated deaths,” according to the study.

Children who have lost a parent or caregiver are at increased risk for disease, physical abuse, sexual violence and adolescent pregnancy, according to a press release accompanying the study. They also risk being separated from their families and placed in orphanages or care homes, which researchers say have been linked to negative effects on social, physical and mental development.

The solution, said Chris Palusky, president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services, is “the loving care of a family, not another orphanage.” He pointed to Scripture passages that say God sets the lonely in families and call on Christians to care for those who have been orphaned.

“We urge Christians to support efforts to strengthen vulnerable families and communities, reunify families, and place children without caregivers in loving families, so that children never have to live in orphanages,” Palusky said.

Losing a loved one and caring for orphaned children also puts “immense” stress on remaining parents and extended family members, added Margaret Schuler, World Vision’s senior vice president of international programs.

“Yet efforts for care must be focused at supporting them in and through their families to prevent unnecessary separation,” Schuler said. “We encourage Christians and the Church to mobilize to keep families together in order to help children thrive.”

The study was published alongside a report by the CDC and other agencies titled ” Children: The Hidden Pandemic 2021.”

 

Tunisia’s president orders military to manage virus crisis

Tunisia’s president orders military to manage virus crisis

A man wearing a face mask to protect from COVID-19 leaves a hospital in Tunis, Tunisia, Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Tunisia’s president on Wednesday ordered the military to take over management of the national COVID-19 pandemic response, as the country fights one of Africa’s worst outbreaks. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia’s president ordered the military Wednesday to take over managing the national COVID-19 pandemic response, as the country fights one of Africa’s worst outbreaks.

The military health service will be assigned the task, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced on regional TV network Al Arabiya.

Soldiers and military medics are already carrying out vaccinations in remote parts of Tunisia. On Tuesday, military trucks transported oxygen to regions in the center and northwest of the country where hospitals are suffering shortages.

Meanwhile, an interim health minister on Wednesday replaced the health minister who was fired over his surprise decision to open vaccination centers to all adults for the first time this week during the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha.

Authorities were unprepared for the decision, which prompted confusion and chaos as crowds massed at vaccination centers. The president called it a “crime” to encourage large groups to gather while the government is trying to limit the spread of the virus.

Eid al-Adha, or the “Feast of Sacrifice,” is typically marked by communal prayers, large social gatherings, slaughtering of livestock and distributing meat to the needy. This year, Tunisian authorities restricted gatherings and reinstated a curfew in some regions with high numbers of confirmed cases.

In a new blow to Tunisia’s long-struggling tourism sector, authorities closed some of the country’s Mediterranean beaches.

The former health minister’s decision to open vaccination centers during the holiday led to confrontations at some locations between people seeking shots before doses ran out and health officials trying to enforce anti-infection measures.

Windows and doors of some vaccination centers were smashed, and medics and paramedics were assaulted in some places, oOpposition lawmaker Saifeddine Merghni, a medical doctor, said.

“The least that can be said is that the decision (to open vaccination centers on the Muslim feast day) is wrong, and you see its repercussions,” he said. “The day of joy (Eid Al-Adha) turned into a day of a lot of tension.”

People wearing face masks to protect from COVID-19, stand outside a hospital in Tunis, Tunisia, Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Tunisia’s president on Wednesday ordered the military to take over management of the national COVID-19 pandemic response, as the country fights one of Africa’s worst outbreaks. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

The line at the only vaccination center in the central city of Kairouan was so long that 63-year-old Ali ben Haj was making his third try to get vaccinated and growing impatient.

“Look at all the people. Why all this? What have we done? You, authorities, if you cannot find solutions for us, let us search for solutions ourselves,” he said.

Overall, Tunisia has reported more deaths per capita than any African country and among the highest daily death rates per capita in the world in recent weeks. Foreign countries have been pouring in vaccines and other medical aid.

___

Mehdi El Arem contributed from Kairouan and Tunis.

 

Retiring Bishop Vashti McKenzie, first AME Church woman prelate, reflects on a groundbreaking career

Retiring Bishop Vashti McKenzie, first AME Church woman prelate, reflects on a groundbreaking career

(RNS) — Just-retired Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie is an apologist for an adaptive style of leadership. It’s what has helped her succeed as the first woman to hold many roles in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. And it’s a style of leadership she said was needed during the pandemic.

“Adaptive leadership means that you are faced with situations but do not have a solution or answer that comes from past experiences, so you have to adapt,” she said in an interview on Thursday (July 15), a week after her retirement began at the close of her denomination’s General Conference in Orlando, Florida.

“You have to know how to pivot, you have to step back, get on the balcony, survey the scene, throw out what you know or what you think you know and then find the answer that’s going to fit this issue right here.”

McKenzie, who remains the national chaplain of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, acknowledged this approach appeals to her because that’s the way she’s lived her life as a female trailblazer in her  205-year-old denomination. In 2000, McKenzie was the first woman elected bishop and later the first to serve as president of its Council of Bishops and chair of the General Conference Commission, which organizes the denomination’s quadrennial meeting.

Now one of five women bishops elected in the AME Church, McKenzie remains ready to answer anyone who questions their ability to lead.

“Do I think women can do this? Yes,” she said. “Do I think women are called to this? Yes. Do I think the women that have been elected in my denomination have done an exceptional job? Absolutely.”

As she led AME regional districts in Africa, Tennessee and Texas, McKenzie said she focused on her work rather than her title, letting the results speak for themselves. She modeled holding babies with AIDS to show it was safe and proved it was worthwhile to develop church websites to help attract new members and it was practical to use golf tournaments as fundraisers for church projects and seminary scholarships.

As she spoke at the conclusion of the General Conference bishops’ retirement service on July 9, she thanked her husband, former NBA guard Stan McKenzie (the first male episcopal supervisor of missionary work in the AME Church), her denomination and God for their support.

“What God did for me is evidence of what God can do for you,” she said. “For if God could do this, God can do what God promises you. That can be done no matter who says it can’t be.”

McKenzie, 74, talked with Religion News Service about her journey as a female bishop, those who paved the way for her to reach that role, and what’s next for her and for her denomination.

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, center, outgoing pastor of Payne Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, bids longtime member Helen Thorton farewell on her last Sunday at the church in Sept. 2000. At left is her husband, Stan McKenzie. Photo by Carl Bower

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Looking back as the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is there a way you would sum up your experience since 2000?

Being the first of anything, there is no book. There is no DVD. There’s no movie. There’s nobody in front of you, to be able to share back experiences of what it’s going to look like and feel like and be like and so you’re charting your own way. And as people receive you — not only as you are in your position but also receive you as a human being — and begin to see you have something to bring to the table and be able to embrace the uniqueness of my femininity. I do what bishops have to do, but I don’t do them in the same way because I’m Vashti.

Your family has long been in the journalism business, running the Afro American newspaper chain. You wrote newspaper articles starting at age 16 and as bishop you oversaw denominational publications including The Christian Recorder. What was it like to move from being in the news business to becoming a newsmaker?

It was a little bit different being on the other side of the microphone, the other side of the camera and on the other side of the notepad, really, because I grew up telling some other people’s stories. And then the shift comes where then you become the story. And so, my intention was not to have my episcopal career be about me. That my episcopal career would be about the people I serve. So I was intentional, to focus on the work, rather than the first. God didn’t just call me to be first. God called me to do the work. And so that’s what I focused on in each of the districts I served.

You mentioned in the “Echoes from the General Conference” documentary that, though 2000 was a turning point for women bishops, it was preceded by earlier actions. What and/or who paved the way?

Well, many, many women. Many women whose names were not written, who did not get a footnote, who were in the margins. Faces and names people have forgotten a long time ago. Beginning with Jarena Lee. Jarena Lee stood at her time, when Bishop Richard Allen says he’s not going to license women. But God created an opportunity and she stood, and so then off she goes to walking and preaching hundreds of miles.

Elizabeth Scott ran for the episcopacy for many, many, many years. The women who were appointed presiding elders, the women who were appointed pastors, and did fabulous work because if they didn’t, then they would never give another woman a chance.

The 2021 episcopal address, the message of the bishops to the denomination during the General Conference, spoke of longtime struggles for women to gain ordination, and the rank of bishop. What action do you think is needed still?

What seems to be difficult for the church at large — and I’m talking about the universal church, denominations at large — is the inability of embracing inclusivity, as far as women is concerned. Just because you’re at the table, doesn’t mean it’s success for all women. Just because there’s one presiding elder, one woman who is a bishop, doesn’t mean the playing field is level for all women. And so in order for that to happen, we have to be intentional, and intentional means you don’t promote or assign just because a woman is a woman. You recognize her gifts. When I ran, I didn’t run on a platform saying elect me because I’m a woman. I ran on a platform that says elect me because I’m qualified.

Was there something you’re particularly proud of achieving in ecumenical or interfaith circles?

Most of my ministry is focused within the AME Church but I preach everywhere. I have preached for the Presbyterian women, the Baptist women. I preached for the Hampton (University) Ministers’ Conference with denominations from all over, for the United Methodist Church, for the United Methodist annual conferences. And in that way, sharing prophetically also helps to shape people’s embracing women. I have preached at Catholic churches. I have spoken in Jewish communities.

I have preached in seminaries, and it’s so important for the female seminarians to be able to see someone who is their same gender, who has the same kind of uniqueness, as an encouragement to see the broader picture, to see ministry beyond your own front door.

The AME Church has voted to start an ad hoc committee on LGBTQ matters. Do you think it may be turning a corner about acceptance of LGBTQ people, just as the denomination turned a corner on women bishops 21 years ago?

I think dialogue is going to be good for the church because there are different people in different places having different kinds of conversations and to be able to have open conversation, which an ad hoc committee would provide, where the church is gathered, will be healthy and may be helpful.

Do you see an end to the ban on same-sex marriage?

I think we’re going to have to wait and see the conversation, the power of the conversation. I just think it’s just too hard to predict at this moment. We have to remember the church, the broader church, has a hard time dealing with racism. Church, period, had a hard time dealing with sexism. They have a hard time dealing with agism, classism. And now, this is the next wrestle. And after this wrestle, there’ll be another, and there’ll be another, and there’ll be another, and there’ll be another.

So now that you have reached retirement as an AME bishop, what’s next for you?

I’m going to continue with Selah (Leadership Encounters for Women, her professional women’s empowerment organization) because I have a passion for leadership. I plan to write. This is a good time to sit down and put some thoughts down on paper. And then, as they say, we’ll look into the horizon to see what also is next.

This story has been corrected to clarify that the African Methodist Episcopal Church has a ban on same-sex marriage. It does not have a ban on ordination of LGBTQ persons.

 

With Roots in Civil Rights, Community Health Centers Push for Equity in the Pandemic

With Roots in Civil Rights, Community Health Centers Push for Equity in the Pandemic

In the 1960s, health care across the Mississippi Delta was sparse and much of it was segregated. Some hospitals were dedicated to Black patients, but they often struggled to stay afloat. At the height of the civil rights movement, young Black doctors launched a movement of their own to address the care disparity.

“Mississippi was third-world and was so bad and so separated,” said Dr. Robert Smith. “The community health center movement was the conduit for physicians all over this country who believed that all people have a right to health care.”

In 1967, Smith helped start Delta Health Center, the country’s first rural community health center. They put the clinic in Mound Bayou, a small town in the heart of the Delta, in northwestern Mississippi. The center became a national model and is now one of nearly 1,400 such clinics across the country. These clinics, called federally qualified health centers, are a key resource in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, where about 2 in 5 people live in rural areas. Throughout the U.S., about 1 in 5 people live in rural areas.

The covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges facing rural health care, such as lack of broadband internet access and limited public transportation. For much of the vaccine rollout, those barriers have made it difficult for providers, like community health centers, to get shots into the arms of their patients.

“I just assumed that [the vaccine] would flow like water, but we really had to pry open the door to get access to it,” said Smith, who still practices family medicine in Mississippi.

Mound Bayou was founded by formerly enslaved people, many of whom became farmers.

The once-thriving downtown was home to some of the first Black-owned businesses in the state. Today the town is dotted with shuttered or rundown banks, hotels and gas stations.

Mitch Williams grew up on a Mound Bayou farm in the 1930s and ’40s and spent long days working the soil.

“If you would cut yourself, they wouldn’t put no sutures in, no stitches in it. You wrapped it up and kept going,” Williams said.

When Delta Health Center started operations in 1967, it was explicitly for all residents of all races — and free to those who needed financial help.

Williams, 85, was one of its first patients.

“They were seeing patients in the local churches. They had mobile units. I had never seen that kind of comprehensive care,” he said.

Residents really needed it. In the 1960s, many people in Mound Bayou and the surrounding area didn’t have clean drinking water or indoor plumbing.

At the time, the 12,000 Black residents of northern Bolivar County, which includes Mound Bayou, faced unemployment rates as high as 75% and lived on a median annual income of just $900 (around $7,500 in today’s dollars), according to a congressional report. The infant mortality rate was close to 60 for every 1,000 live births — four times the rate for affluent Americans.

Delta Health Center employees helped people insulate their homes. They built outhouses and provided food and sometimes even traveled to patients’ homes to offer care, if someone didn’t have transportation. Staffers believed these factors affected health outcomes, too.

Williams, who later worked for Delta Health, said he’s not sure where the community would be today if the center didn’t exist.

“It’s frightening to think of it,” he said.

Half a century later, the Delta Health Center continues to provide accessible and affordable care in and around Mound Bayou.

Black Southerners still face barriers to health. In April 2020, early in the pandemic, Black residents accounted for nearly half of covid deaths in Alabama and over 70% in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Public health data from last month shows that Black residents of those states have consistently been more likely to die of covid than residents of other races.

“We have a lot of chronic health conditions here, particularly concentrated in the Mississippi Delta, that lead to higher rates of complications and death with covid,” said Nadia Bethley, a clinical psychologist at the center. “It’s been tough.”

Delta Health Center has grown over the decades, from a few trailers in Mound Bayou to a chain of 18 clinics across five counties. It’s managed to vaccinate over 5,500 people against covid. The majority have been Black.

“We don’t have the National Guard, you know, lining up out here, running our site. It’s the people who work here,” Bethley said.

The Mississippi State Department of Health said it has prioritized health centers since the beginning of the rollout. But Delta Health CEO John Fairman said the center was receiving only a couple of hundred doses a week in January and February. The supply became more consistent around early March, center officials said.

“Many states would be much further ahead had they utilized community health centers from the very beginning,” Fairman said. Fairman said his center saw success with vaccinations because of its long-standing relationships with the local communities.

“Use the infrastructure that’s already in place, that has community trust,” said Fairman.

That was the entire point of the health center movement in the first place, said Smith. He said states that were slow to use health centers in the vaccine rollout made a mistake that has made it difficult to get a handle on covid in the most vulnerable communities.

Smith called the slow dispersal of vaccines to rural health centers “an example of systemic racism that continues.”

A spokesperson for Mississippi’s health department said it is “committed to providing vaccines to rural areas but, given the rurality of Mississippi, it is a real challenge.”

Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, said the low dose allocation to rural health clinics and community health centers early on is “going to cost lives.”

“With hospitalizations and mortality much higher in rural communities, these states need to focus on the hot spots, which in many cases are these small towns,” Morgan said of the vaccine efforts in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

A report from KFF found that people of color made up the majority of people vaccinated at community health centers and that the centers seem to be vaccinating people at rates similar to or higher than their share of the population. (The KHN newsroom, which collaborated to produce this story, is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

The report added that “ramping up health centers’ involvement in vaccination efforts at the federal, state and local levels” could be a meaningful step in “advancing equity on a larger scale.”

Equal access to care in rural communities is necessary to reach the most vulnerable populations and is just as critical during this global health crisis as it was in the 1960s, according to Smith.

“When health care improves for Blacks, it will improve for all Americans,” Smith said.

This story is from a partnership that includes NPR, KHN and the three stations that make up the Gulf States Newsroom: Mississippi Public Broadcasting; WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama; and WWNO in New Orleans.

Subscribe to KHN's free Morning Briefing.

On Solid Rock

On Solid Rock

 

It could be daunting to take over the reins as lead pastor for a church your famous parents planted in 2012, but for Alvin Love III, 35, it was a natural progression that was initially inspired by a powerful encounter he had on a visit to Melbourne Life Church in Australia.

“It was something that was just surprisingly personal and I guess invasive a little bit. I felt like God was looking at me and only me. And that was the first time for me to where I just felt that much attention and that much focus from God and it stopped me in my tracks. I was only planning on staying in Australia for three months. I decided to stay nine months because the discipleship course that the church offered was a nine-month class,” said Love.

From that encounter, Love began sharing his experience with his friends and family and what he felt was in his heart. He learned that a number of his friends were also taking steps to a deeper connection with God. Over the next year, pastors and leaders from Melbourne Life Church came to Nashville and ministered to him and his friends at his parents’ home. It was their ministry that launched Nashville Life Church with 38 members and Pastors Alvin Love II and CeCe Winans as Senior Pastors. Now, in 2020, with about 400 members, he and his friends are leading the congregation. Although some changes are happening, they are learning as they go.

“I’m very different from my parents, but our church has been a collaborative effort. My dad and mom brought me pretty close to the core of what was happening. So though I was never the leader from a governmental and even spiritual point, I’ve always had a prominent voice in the building of the culture and what we have. I think the change is less because I’m in charge and more because I’m evolving and we’re getting better and better,” said Love.

It’s a multicultural church and very diverse in a lot of ways; not just racially, but politically, philosophically, and economically. As would be expected, that naturally has caused some division within the church that Love has had to address head-on. Rather than pick a side or using his platform to speak politically, he emphasizes not letting politics divide the church.

“There’s always been Democrats and Republicans. There’s always been all types of people, and that’s okay. I don’t think that your Christian faith has to dictate where you lean politically, however, as believers, we should never let politics serve as a tool to divide the church that God has called to be one,” said Love.

So what does he believe they should be focused on? What Love says are the “basic beliefs — being a community of faith amidst the social, health, and political unrest. They had to do things a little differently with COVID. Previously, they’d gather more with 12-week small groups. Now, they’re focused on being a source of life and faith for people wherever they are, whether at work, in the neighborhood, or elsewhere. He encourages his members to reach out to people who aren’t part of their church community, or perhaps they’re at the edge of not believing at all.

“Our faith can be that boost they need to come closer to God. I think fear is at an all-time high. I think suicidal thoughts, and mental illness is at an all-time high. And that’s what we’re seeing in our own city. And I think, if nothing else, just the idea of having faith and believing that things are going to turn around and believing that God is still in control and he still loves us, “ said Love.

Love says even as a pastor he has been affected by the woes of 2020 — the isolation, the discouragement, and looking at an Instagram feed and only seeing re-postings of shootings, and deaths, and COVID numbers going up. A lot of the depressing news happened in the months leading to him transitioning as the senior pastor. Not to mention, he had to navigate CDC guidelines for churches and determine whether they should even meet in person. He gets what people are feeling, but he’s trying to lead by example.

“I have been hit by pressures, and I’ve been vulnerable to anxiety, but it’s the fight to stand on the rock of God’s Word that has allowed me to not only still be standing, but to still be thriving, and to be able to preach, and to be able to live life and have joy is a testament that this works, God works. And the Holy Spirit is definitely a sustainer.”

 

With Harris and Hannah-Jones, Howard University is on a roll

With Harris and Hannah-Jones, Howard University is on a roll

FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo, an electronic signboard welcomes people to the Howard University campus in Washington. With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice.

But then, Howard University has never exactly been low-profile.

For more than a century, the predominantly Black institution in the nation’s capital has educated generations of Black political and cultural leaders. Among them: Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, civil rights icon Stokely Carmichael, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and Vice President Kamala Harris.

But even by those standards, the school has been on a hot streak lately, with new funding streams, fresh cultural relevancy and high-profile faculty additions. This past week’s hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates serves as confirmation that Howard intends to dive neck-deep into America’s divisive racial debate.

FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo Nikole Hannah-Jones is interviewed at her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Hannah-Jones opted against teaching at the University of North Carolina after a protracted tenure fight centered on conservative objections to her work and instead chose Howard University, where she will hold the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Hannah-Jones opted against teaching at the University of North Carolina after a protracted tenure fight centered on conservative objections to her work and instead chose Howard, where she will hold the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. She rose to fame with The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which reframed U.S. history through a racial equity lens and helped mainstream the idea of critical race theory — a topic that has become a core Republican talking point.

 

 

 

FILE – In this Nov. 21, 2019 file photo, author Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks during the Celebration of the Life of Toni Morrison at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. This past week’s hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Coates serves as confirmation that Howard University intends to dive neck-deep into America’s divisive racial debate. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

 

Coates has written critically on U.S. race relations for years and is closely associated with the argument for reparations for slavery.

Howard’s president, Wayne Frederick, doesn’t characterize either hiring as overtly political, but merely a natural extension of the university’s motivating ethos.

“Howard University has been on that caravan for social justice for about 154 years,” Frederick said in an interview. “Howard has a rich legacy. … My responsibility is to contemporize that and to bring faculty to the university who are in the contemporary space, speaking to present-day issues.”

Columbia University journalism professor Jelani Cobb, a Howard alumnus, described the moves as a pivotal jump in the university’s national stature. Howard, he said, had gone from traditionally “punching above its weight class” to “moving up a whole division.”

All this is just a few years removed from a period of internal tension and financial scandal. In 2018, six employees were fired amid revelations of more than $350,000 in misappropriated grant funding, and students staged a nine-day occupation of the administration building over demands that included better housing and an end to tuition increases.

But even amid those problems, Howard has seen a boost in applications and enrollment as more Black students choose to attend historically Black colleges and universities. “I do think that we’re seeing a renaissance, and that that’s driven by the students more than the parents,” said Noliwe Rooks, chair of Africana studies at Brown University. Rooks attended Spelman, an all-female HBCU in Atlanta.

Howard University Student Association President Kylie Burke, left, introduces Vice President Kamala Harris to the podium to speaks about voting rights at Howard University in Washington, Thursday, July 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Vice President Harris returned to Howard days after the hirings were announced. Speaking at a news conference on a voters’ rights initiative sponsored by the Democratic National Committee, she received a rapturous welcome from a packed house that supplied church-style “amens” and burst into applause when she called Howard “a very important part of why I stand before you at this moment as vice president of the United States of America.”

 

For current students, the school’s rising profile is a confirmation of their choice to attend “The Mecca” — one of Howard’s many nicknames.

“There’s something truly intangible about this university,” said Kylie Burke, a political science major and president of the Howard Student Association, who introduced Harris at the event. Like Harris, Burke came from Northern California to attend Howard, and she served as a legislative fellow in Harris’ office when she was a senator. “Howard teaches you a thing about grit, it teaches you to remain focused, it teaches you to be persistent,” Burke said.

The hirings capped a dizzying stretch for Howard.

FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo with the Founders Library in the background, people walk along the Howard University campus in Washington. With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Within the past year, Harris was elected vice president; MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, donated $40 million; and actor Phylicia Rashad returned to her alma mater as dean of the newly independent College of Fine Arts. That college will be named after the late Chadwick Boseman, a Howard graduate whose role as African superhero Black Panther made him an instant icon and shined a fresh cultural spotlight on the school.

Boseman expressed his love for the university in a 2018 commencement speech, calling it “a magical place.” He cited one of the school’s more modern nicknames, “Wakanda University,” a reference to the movie’s technologically advanced African utopia.

Although there’s rising interest across the HBCU network, Cobb said Howard will always attract a particular demographic of Black student such as Harris with an interest in politics and governance. The school has produced members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries and mayors. One of Cobb’s undergraduate classmates was Ras Baraka, now mayor of Newark, New Jersey.

Rooks said Hannah-Jones’ move could have ripple effects throughout academia.

Traditionally, Rooks said, Black academics were drawn to predominantly white universities because that’s where the funding and the prestige lay. But Hannah-Jones didn’t just bring her reputation; she also brought nearly $20 million in funding.

“It’s a whole other thing when you become the benefactor,” Rooks said. “We all learn how to behave, how to act, in the presence of power. If you’re the power and it’s your money, you’ve taken a whole racial dynamic off the table.”

Still, Howard’s rising prominence does bring the risk that it will overshadow smaller HBCUs. Rooks said Howard and a handful of other big names such as Morehouse, Spelman and Hampton dominate the headlines and the funding. She said, half-jokingly, that most Black American students couldn’t name more than 12 of the 107 HBCUs in the country.

One possible example of the phenomenon: In 2019, NBA star Steph Curry donated an undisclosed amount to allow Howard to launch Division I men’s and women’s golf teams, and fund them for six years. Curry was raised in North Carolina, home to 10 active HBCUs, and holds no particular connection to Howard.

The HBCU world still boils down to “five or six schools that really attract a lot of attention,” Rooks said, and dozens of others that are “desperate for funding.”

Howard’s recent fortune, she said, is “not necessarily going to raise all the boats.”

___

Associated Press writer Hilary Powell contributed to this report.

___

Follow Khalil on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ashrafkhalil