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NFL & United Way Blog

Pittsburgh Steelers Highlight Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The Pittsburgh Steelers and United Way of Southwest Pennsylvania hosted a Character Playbook event on Nov. 17 bringing awareness to and celebrating Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). The panel discussion featured Donnie Shell, NFL Hall of Famer, former Steeler and HBCU graduate, who spoke on his experiences at South Carolina State University and how they helped shape him into the player he was in the NFL and the man he is today. The panel also consisted of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Pro Scouting Coordinator, Brandon Hunt, and the Global Head of Talent for EVERFI who is an HBCU alumna, LaRae Holliday. Howard University women’s basketball player, Gia Thorpe, added a fresh perspective to the discussion as a current HBCU student. The discussion was brilliantly moderated by Dr. Damion Thomas who is the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Curator of Sports.  

Historically Black Colleges and Universities were founded in the early 19th century as a result of African Americans being denied access to higher education institutions in the U.S. due to racism. There are now 103 HBCUs with a total enrollment of over 228,000 nationwide. HBCUs currently serve as a place where Black students learn, not only about their desired profession, but also about true Black history and culture.  

“Going to an HBCU, you get to go somewhere where you love that place, but you’ll also get that same love in return. You get to be comfortable being Black which is something a predominantly white institution (PWI) can’t teach you,” Thorpe said. 

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris graduated from Howard University, one of the top HBCUs in the country, and HBCU alumni and students all over the country have been rejoicing because not only is she the first Black woman in office, but she is also the first to come from an HBCU. For years, HBCU students have been told that their degree does not mean as much or that they do not experience the “real world” at HBCUs which is a myth that the panelists debunked during the event. With Vice President-elect Harris headed to office, it validates and even enhances the fact that a degree from an HBCU is just as credible and legitimate as a degree from anywhere else. HBCU students are ecstatic about the fact that despite society saying otherwise, they are capable of doing absolutely anything, even making it to the White House.  

“Attending Howard gave me a voice. HBCUs builds leaders,” Thorpe explained. 

As a result of increased exposure to HBCUs during events such as this one and BET’s televised HBCU Homecoming in October, enrollment at HBCUs is steadily increasing every year. Top prospect, Black athletes, such as Daniel Ingram and Makur Maker, are also now choosing to sign contracts to play sports at HBCUs instead of D1 PWIs. Hunt explained that this is happening because of a desire to bolster the revenue of HBCUs and the success of Black professional athletes who entered their respective leagues from HBCUs. In 1974, for example, the Pittsburgh Steelers had 10 players on its roster who came from HBCUs, and three of them went on to become Hall of Famers, including Shell.  

Education is a major focus for United Way, and we welcome celebrations of HBCUs and institutions of all kinds in order to provide a wide range of higher education options for all communities.