TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Stately, century-old magnolias, shady lawns and simple, well-maintained landscaping are the first features that visitors notice as they enter the 100-acre campus of Stillman College. Next, you see the beautiful, unassuming, brick architecture and the wide-open spaces between the buildings.
Then, you see the students, which is why I returned here for the fourth time in as many years.
One of the remaining 106 historically black colleges and universities, Stillman enrolls students from more than 20 states and several foreign countries, including Germany and Korea. Founded in 1876 by Presbyterian clergyman the Rev. Charles Allen Stillman as a training school for Negro ministers, Stillman has evolved into a four-year coeducational, liberal arts oasis of learning.
Without overstatement, "oasis of learning" is the best way to describe this special place. While several other historically black institutions are falling on economic hard times and face threats of permanently losing accreditation, Stillman, with an average student population of 1,400, succeeds in attracting some of the nation's brightest African-American high school seniors.
A hallmark of the campus is its unusually low student-faculty ratio of 16:1, which ensures that each student can receive individual attention. Even with a modest annual operating budget of $32-million and an endowment of just $25-million, Stillman provides, among other amenities, a wireless computer network and gives each student a laptop.
But the main reason for this success cannot be measured by dollars and technology. The reason is far simpler: a tradition of caring, high expectations and hope.
When I was here four years ago as the Mellon Endowment Writer in Residence, I spent time with then-president Cordell Wynn, who had been at the helm the previous 15 years. As we strolled across campus one afternoon, Wynn hailed several students by name and chatted with them.
After advising a male student to "hit the books every day" if he planned to graduate with his class and after the student had walked away, Wynn turned to me and said: "We discourage pessimism and flatly reject self-pity and excuses. We try to banish the word "victim' from our students' vocabularies and psyches. Here at Stillman, we reconnect black kids with traditional values that have been lost today. We give them a nurturing, hopeful environment.
"Many young black people have a great thirst to learn, but they must have opportunities. They need to be around positive adults who believe in them, who see them as significant individuals. Caring is hope. We teach our students that we're in this struggle together, that we can do better together."
Wynn's successor, Ernest McNealey, the college's fifth president, stepped in and continues what is called the "Stillman Tradition."
On this current trip, I visited several classes, lectured and interviewed more than 25 freshmen. I wanted to know why - when many of them had standardized test scores and public school grade-point averages high enough to attend larger, traditionally white schools - they chose Stillman.
Frederick J. White: "I like Stillman because it is small and the faculty members know students by their names. I plan to graduate from Stillman, and I plan to encourage other Stillman students to spread the word."
Jerome Franks: "I looked around and wanted to go college, and I didn't have high enough ACT scores to get into some of the bigger schools. But I wanted to attend college. Stillman gave me a chance. Stillman is a real nice place to be if you don't want to be in a packed classroom and if you want to learn. Basically, that is why I came here. I want to be able to learn. I just needed a chance."
Charleston Robinson: "I'm a baseball player. I hadn't really planned to attend college. I was just a young black male out of Mobile. But when Stillman contacted me about playing baseball, I saw an opportunity knocking on my door and a chance to change my life. I was a black male headed for self-destruction on the streets of Mobile."
Ebony Davis: "I came to Stillman because the professors help you out in every possible way. I grasp some things slower than I do others. Sometimes I need extra help. Stillman offers me that extra help. I feel comfort in knowing that I will finish college if I'm dedicated and work hard. I don't know if this would be true at one of the other colleges."
Tyshell Travis: "I want a lot of attention. If I need help in a course, I can get it personally from my professor. I feel at home. All of the people on campus want you to succeed. For sure, the professors want you to succeed in their classes. I am the first person in my family to attend college, and I must succeed for my family. The people at Stillman know that because they know me."
Kenesha K. Dix: "Having small classes and personal relationships with our professors make college life easier. The professors understand our culture and can focus their attention on our needs. This wouldn't happen on a mostly white campus. Being able to see the success of other African-American graduates of historically black schools inspires me to work hard. HBCUs are important institutions to African-American students because they offer a strong support system."
Each student and professor with whom I spoke said that given the nation's political shift to the right and its anti-affirmative action mood, the historically black college and university are as important as ever, perhaps even more so.
"Let's not kid ourselves," a professor said, on condition of anonymity. "Black people, especially young black males, are out of favor in America these days. There's a lot of unwarranted resentment of black kids out there. They all aren't rap singers, and they all aren't headed to prison.
"Many of these kids want to attend college, and most of them need assistance of one kind or another. The HBCU is essential during these conservative times. Most people don't know - or don't care - that although 18 percent of black students in the United States attend HBCUs, 23 percent of black students who receive degrees get them from these institutions. That's no small matter."
He is right. As I continue my research on the nation's historically black colleges and universities, I am convinced that keeping the best of these institutions viable is not only good for African-Americans but is in the best interest of the nation as a whole.
"Some of the same cultural, social and racial forces that created these schools to begin with over a century ago are still with us," the professor said. "People who have been poorly educated by the system, who may have low ACTs and SATs and who have been disenfranchised need somewhere to study, too. HBCUs, like Stillman, are crucial in this way."