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  • Born to Serve: A History of Texas Southern University by Merline Pitre
  • Cecilia M. Orphan
Born to Serve: A History of Texas Southern University. By Merline Pitre. Race and Culture in the American West. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018. Pp. xiv, 270. $29.95, ISBN 978-0-8061-6002-3.)

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have long faced questions of relevance. In a country that has purportedly secured educational equity through desegregation, are HBCUs still necessary? Such questions ignore substantial research demonstrating that educational equity is far from a reality and that HBCUs award more degrees to African Americans than do all other postsecondary sectors. Despite their importance, HBCUs have experienced funding inequities when compared with historically white institutions. Born to Serve: A History of Texas Southern University is a powerful telling of what these funding and relevance challenges have meant for Texas Southern University (TSU), an HBCU in Houston, Texas. Merline Pitre is a skilled historian who addresses the questions facing HBCUs through showing TSU's importance to African Americans. She explores how leaders and activists reclaimed TSU's founding purpose from racist policy makers wishing to preserve segregation in the Jim Crow South. Instead, the purpose that TSU's enterprising leaders successfully advanced was "political freedom and . . . economic and educational opportunities" for African Americans (pp. 8-9).

The first chapter introduces the junior college that became TSU, which was founded to train teachers for segregated Houston schools. In 1947, TSU was created during an "emergency"; policy makers wanted to prevent the integration of the University of Texas at Austin (p. 21). Drawing on archival and oral history data, subsequent chapters trace TSU's evolution from 1947 to 2016 through covering different university presidential administrations as they advanced racial uplift. No HBCU is an island, given the institutions' importance to African American well-being; Pitre shows that this description is especially true for TSU. Multiple presidents saved the institution from closure or merger while establishing TSU as an anchor for Houston's African American community. By bounding TSU's history through presidential administrations, Pitre illuminates the importance of senior leadership to advancing the critical HBCU mission. [End Page 499] She also shows that broad strokes cannot be used to paint leadership. Indeed, quality histories reveal the good and the bad in leaders. Pitre fairly reports her assessments of each president, while presenting rigorous data analysis to support these assessments.

Pitre also describes the landmark Sweatt v. Painter (1950) decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the characteristics of the TSU law school failed to meet the separate-but-equal standard of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), paving the way for the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision four years later. Throughout the book, Pitre describes how TSU students and administrators led the civil rights movement. As such, not only is Born to Serve a history of an HBCU, but it is also an account of federal and Texas segregation policy and law.

This excellent manuscript would be improved by widening its focus beyond presidential administrations to include analyses of faculty, staff, and community leadership. The commitment of many faculty, staff, and community members to their HBCUs is well documented—these individuals advanced their institutions' vital missions despite constrained budgets and multiple responsibilities. Focusing on presidential administrations unintentionally over-dramatizes administrative scandals. Surely, excellent teaching and community engagement were evident in the midst of these scandals. In her epilogue, Pitre describes some faculty leaders, and in other chapters she describes student leadership; however, the book would be strengthened by weaving these stories throughout. That said, it is college presidents who respond to policy makers who question HBCU relevance, and presidents lead their institutions despite funding challenges. Pitre's focus is thus understandable.

Pitre's work is an outstanding contribution to our understanding of HBCUs. This book would be appropriate for courses in public policy, African American studies, and educational administration. History, education, and policy scholars would also benefit from reading this book. Past is often prologue, a statement with which this journal's readers likely agree. Pitre's analysis supports the success of modern HBCU leaders by providing essential lessons drawn from TSU...


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pp. 499-500
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