Democratic and Republican lawmakers put aside differences to help black colleges
WASHINGTON — It took Rep. Alma Adams a few meetings to convince Bradley Byrne to partner with her three years ago and create a congressional caucus to advocate for black colleges and universities.
Adams, a progressive Democrat from North Carolina, and Byrne, a conservative Republican from Alabama, didn’t know much about each other. They also didn’t agree on much.
But they did agree that black colleges need more support from Congress.
Today, Adams and Byrne co-chair the bipartisan Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Caucus, which has grown to include 72 members from the House and Senate.
“He was probably a little skeptical too of me. He had to go back and talk to his folks," said Adams. “Then he realized it’s something that probably could benefit not only his party, but him personally … Strange bedfellows.”
Two of the caucus’ Republican members Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Mark Walker of North Carolina are hosting a conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill with at least 60 HBCU presidents planning to attend.
Next month, the HBCU Caucus will team with the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) Caucus to host an “action day’’ to help students from black colleges get jobs in those fields.
Later that month, the caucus will sponsor a meeting connecting officials from engineering programs at HBCUs with business leaders.
The caucus hosted its first HBCU conference last fall and sponsored a panel at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual legislative weekend. Hundreds crammed into a room at the Washington Convention Center to listen to presidents of black colleges air their concerns. Another conference is planned for later this year.
“Having a HBCU congressional caucus is a good thing," said Adams. “It’s a good underpinning for the work that I know we can do ... We are in a unique position as a caucus to help educate other members on both sides of the aisle."
Byrne concedes he had reservations at first.
“I gotta tell you I didn’t know much about what to expect from it, but it’s just far exceeded what I thought we would be able to accomplish," he said.
Byrne said the caucus has done a particularly good job connecting black colleges and big businesses, which have led to new partnerships. “Watching that flower over the last year or so has been really fulfilling for me," he said.
Just last week Intel Corp. announced plans to work with black colleges on curricula that would better train students for jobs after college.
Adams and Byrne both serve on the Education and the Workforce Committee and the panel’s subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training.
Adams, who served in the statehouse in North Carolina, also taught Art History for 40 years at Bennett College, a HBCU in North Carolina.
Byrne, a former state senator, served on the Alabama State Board of Education and was a former chancellor of the Alabama Department of Post-secondary Education.
Adams praised Byrne's passion and willingness to learn more about HBCUs.
Byrne said he loves working with Adams, whom he called a good friend.
“She is the senior partner and I’m the junior partner," he said. “I get that, but we’re partners.”
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a member of the caucus, said he's glad that despite their party affiliations Adams and Byrne teamed to create the caucus.
“It says something about the importance of saving these schools," said Lewis, adding that many African Americans have been educated at HBCUs.
“These schools laid the foundation for so many of us,’’ said Lewis, a civil rights veteran. “The modern-day civil rights movement really came out of these colleges and universities."
There’s bipartisanship throughout the caucus leadership.
The caucus vice chairs include two Democrats, Reps. Terri Sewell of Alabama and Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, and two Republicans , Reps. French Hill off Arkansas and Bruce Westerman of Arkansas.
Byrne said it wasn’t hard to recruit members from both sides of the aisle.
“We had no problems with partisanship at all. None," he said. “This one was particularly easy because so many members have HBCUs in their districts."
Adams said most HBCUs are in districts represented by Republicans.
“They’ve got a stake in this either way," she said.