Lysious Ogolo is an audio production major at Howard University. He’s originally from Nigeria, and moved to the United States with his family in 2008 when he was 18 years old.
His words below are part of an interview for the larger radio documentary The Living Legacy: Black Colleges in the 21st Century, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).
When my family moved to Washington, D.C., it felt like a fresh start. I knew I was coming here to go to college. But I didn’t know where I would go.
Every day I would ride my bike from Longfellow Street all the way down to Maryland Avenue. Every day I would pass Howard. And for some reason I fell in love with the school, and I was like, “I want to go there.”
In Nigeria we knew of Princeton, we knew Harvard, we knew all the Ivy League schools. We didn’t know any HBCUs. I didn’t even know what a historically black college was. It wasn’t until I got into Howard that a lot of what Howard stood for started to unravel for me.
“Why did you choose a historically black college?” That’s the big question we always ask each other at Howard.
There were people who told me, “We came to Howard because we wanted to go to a school where people look like us, people have the same common history and common heritage as us.”
They said it’s important that we learn about our culture, learn about who we are and those who have gone before us, and learn about the history that we carry. And learn about this in a school that was set up for that purpose.
I started taking some African American history classes, and I learned that we are part of this rich heritage. I found out that after slavery ended, we needed a place for people of color to come and learn. You start to understand why HBCUs are important. What they mean not just for black people, but for the history of the United States.
I started to feel that I was part of a community of people, all these people who are part of historically black colleges. I began to be proud of the fact that I was a part of an HBCU. From then on, knowing that Howard was an HBCU made a lot of difference for me. Howard went from just being a good school to being a significant school in the history of the United States of America as a whole.
When you go to an HBCU and you have this history behind you, it changes the way that you look at the world. You know who you are. You know where you are coming from and you know what your history is. Saying that even though I am from Nigeria, I am black. I am part of this culture. I am part of this history. I think for me knowing that changes everything. It changed the way I looked at the world.
I remember when I first came to the United States, I didn’t think much about race relations. “Colorblind” was one of my favorite terms. But when you say you’re colorblind, it’s like you’re saying, “I don’t see that there are any differences in the way that whites and blacks are being treated. I don’t think there is any form of injustice going on.” Do you see how detrimental that is?
At Howard I began to understand it’s not just about what’s happening now, it’s about a history of injustice. And the way I looked at America totally changed. I went from this young man excited to be in America to thinking to myself, “What is my place in this American society?” I started thinking I need to tread the paths of this country carefully.
It’s disheartening because a lot of times, here in the United States, what’s been emphasized is just the bad about the black race. I think a lot of black people feel like white is good, white is great. People don’t see the great history that we have behind us as a people. That is what I want to take out of the mind of my brother or the minds of my future kids, the people that I’m connected to. We are not just a bunch of slaves working on plantations. We have inventors, we have educators, we have great artists and writers and poets. There’s so much greatness to the history of black people. There are so many amazing things done by us.
Those are things that are not being emphasized, things that you don’t hear about. For me it took a long time to re-educate myself about that. That’s one other thing you get from an HBCU: You learn to attack the world, thinking, “Maybe the average white man sees only the bad history, but I see the good history as well.” We don’t let ourselves be defined by the people around us. We think, “I am this person. I come from this culture, I come from this history.” And I don’t know if I would have known that if I had gone to some other school.
Edited and condensed for clarity and length by Samara Freemark from interviews by Emily Hanford.
This essay is part of the larger radio documentary The Living Legacy: Black Colleges in the 21st Century, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).