Last August, I met Seahawks community engagement coordinator Kyle Dougherty at a Seattle Mariners game, shortly after I’d been hired by the team. He excitedly explained to me the premise of the Seahawks being part of a tour experience to send Seattle youth to several HBCUs. As a Morgan State University alum, I often stress the importance and push visibility towards Black colleges such as my own alma mater. Nearly a year later, I excitedly awaited meeting the WHOLE Mentoring group at the first stop of the tour as it kicked off at Norfolk State University.
Providing the youth with opportunities to succeed has long been a mission for the Seahawks, and their latest venture provided 16 Seattle-area students with exposure to the Historic Black College experience. In partnership with Microsoft and The BE Project, more than a dozen young Black students participating in the WHOLE Mentoring program were sponsored to take a tour of six Historically Black Colleges and Universities on the east coast. With a few surprises along the way, the cross-country trek produced an experience unlike any other.
Day 1: Norfolk State
Accompanying the Seahawks' community team and camera crew were nearly-two dozen young men, mainly underclassmen with the exception of one 11th-grader. The young Black men from a range of backgrounds and cultures hopped off the charter bus in awe at the 134-acre campus nestled within the city. Leading the group was African American Male Achievement (AAMA) Chief of Office Dr. Mia Williams and Mentoring Program Coordinator's William King and Kelvin Dankwa, along with The BE Project Founder Allen Brooks. Grambling alum and Microsoft Chair (Blacks at Microsoft) La Shanda Hurst brought along her son Niles - and plenty of Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) apparel. It's no easy task guiding a group of16 young men on a college tour, but it was evident early that this group was unique. Despite the fatigue of overnight travel, the mild-mannered group earned compliments along the first stop (and throughout) for their behavior—and for their curiosity. I quickly learned that the group was referred to as "Kings" as a whole, as Williams and King demanded the group to respect the new spaces they were entering. I studied the reactions of the students as they moved through the new territory, some experiencing life on the east coast for the first time. For as much as they might've believed that they'd stand out as adolescents on a Black college campus, they found more in common than expected. Ingraham High student-athlete Julian Mays learned the storied history of the Spartans' basketball program while seeing other mixed-race students like himself thriving. More observant and reserved for the early portion of the trip was Solomon, who happily pointed out the various flags (Eritrea in particular) on campus representing the students coming from all over. Norfolk State offered the tour's first look at Black excellence at the college level from people of all backgrounds. I chuckled to myself from my seat on the back of the bus as I eavesdropped on the various hushed conversations from the teens about what they liked on the visit. I eagerly anticipated day two and the following stops, as students learned of the diversity within the schools.
For more on Day 1, and for more background on the trip, check out this story from the start of the trip.
Day Two: Hampton University
The Hampton Roads region of Virginia is often known as the Tidewater area or "Seven Cities." Day two of the tour began at Hampton University, the historic private campus that graduated esteemed leader and educator Booker T. Washington (Class of 1875). After braving traffic to capture a photo in front of the school's crest, sociology major Donari Joy Mosby led the group on the campus tour. The young men learned about the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and the popularity of the nursing program due to several surrounding medical facilities. After a breezy day in Norfolk, the sun shined bright on the students at the school nicknamed "Our home by the sea." It was a welcome change in weather for the boys from "Rain City," who were now forced to abandon their Nike sweatsuits. As the campus swelled with students transitioning to classes, Brooks and Mosby led the group outside for a surprise performance by the Divine 9 fraternities and sororities on campus. As the various groups stepped, shimmied and strutted to their preferred music, the crowd swelled as students and other tour groups looked on. From there, the group met All-Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) linebacker Qwahsin Townsel. While educational opportunities and exposure were the driving-force of the trip, the group consisting of several student-athletes also received a crash course on HBCU athletics. Franklin High cornerback Ebrima Dukureh set the tone early as a charismatic-yet-curious participant. Dukureh fired off questions surrounding the rigors of being a student-athlete at the collegiate level. At lunch, the group marveled at the tall glass windows of the university cafe overlooking the water. After retrieving the shades he'd bought for the trip, Dukureh joined the Hampton students outside, food in hand. Shortly after, the others would follow, enjoying lunch with a view.
From there, Mosby led the group through Legacy Park, a beautiful retreat on campus featuring statues of historic figures through time that left an impact on Hampton. Concluding a college visit with a stop at the bookstore to purchase school apparel and toiletries became a ritual on the trip. The boys loaded up on clothes, snacks, and bonnets to keep their tapered haircuts fresh in their sleep.
King and the team demanded more excellence from the young Kings as the night concluded at the Putt Putt Fun Center in Richmond. The group inhaled boxes of pizzas while playing arcade games, miniature golf and riding go-karts before calling it a night.
Day Three: Virginia State/Virginia Union
The third day of the tour experience featured two stops—Virginia State and Virginia Union Universities. The first stop was VSU, with a tour led by freshman vocal performance major Brooklyn Jones. Claiming hold as the first fully state-supported four-year institution of higher-learning for African Americans, Virginia State was founded as Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute in 1882. Through several name changes and, in 1920, parting ties with Hampton, VSU is a historic landmark nestled between Ettrick and Petersburg. Jones echoed the value of community on campus as the group passed t-shirts made commemorating the fight against sexual assault. The third day saw the group refreshed, as they fired off questions about tuition and major programs. They'd now have the experience of being on a few different Black college campuses, giving them choices to compare as they look for a place they could call home. The group was joined by Trojans football players Jason Wright, Kymon Pope, Willie Drew Jr., T.J. Tucker, and Kimo Clarke for lunch, as they were formally introduced to "Fried Chicken Wednesdays." The tradition of campuses serving fried chicken and soul food fixins’ on Wednesdays is wide-spread across black colleges.
With the day split in half, the group boarded the bus for Virginia Union University. The historically-Black private Baptist university was founded as the Richmond Theological Institute in 1865. During the Civil War, Union troops seized control of what was once known as Lumpkin’s Jail, or “The Devil’s Half Acre.” What was once the holding point for transitioning enslaved Africans is now one of Richmond's best colleges. The group toured the L. Douglas Wilder Library, learning of the nation’s first elected African American governor (1990-1994). It was election season at Union, which meant the group was greeted with free sweets and a voting party at the Thomas H. Henderson Center (even though they couldn't participate in the election). The sports-loving teens were met by Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association basketball and football players of the year, Robert Osborne and Jada Byers. Osborne stressed the importance of patience in your process, speaking from experience as a Hampton transfer. The group dodged water balloons in the parking lot during an outdoor campus event as they boarded the bus. Many caught a nap on the ride to Fairfax, as the group stopped at Cinemark theater to see the Nike come-to-glory film Air.
Day Four/Five: Washington D.C.
The group got the surprise of a lifetime Thursday, as Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner accompanied the group on a tour of Howard University and the University of District of Columbia. It was a great opportunity for the Kings to see a different type of Black college. Howard University would offer a different type of experience based on architectural landscape and atmosphere. Even as a Morgan State graduate, there's no denying the legacy of the school on Georgia Avenue. The scroll of alumni including Vice President Kamala Harris, Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, numerous politicians and notable actors and actresses, including Phylicia Rashad, dean of the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts, who also met with the tour group. With Howard's history and esteemed alumni list, much is given to students, and much is expected in return. While known for its storied campus life and party atmosphere (Yardfest), Howard boasts prestigious medical, law and business schools. Students got a first-hand look at balancing campus life with plenty of big-city distractions to explore. While primarily a commuter school, the University of District of Columbia reaps many of the benefits as Howard's sister school. Located a few blocks north of the United States Capitol building, the school provides a Black college experience and opportunity to youth in the city who might not be able to afford to be a Howard Bison. The stop was special to me, as my late father Milton Spratley was an alum, and a proud supporter of my Black college journey.
Wagner's surprise visit to the Howard Bison football team spring practice was just as impactful on the tour group as the players. While the team got to ask one of the league's premiere linebackers any question that came to mind, the Kings with possible athletic aspirations got to see an athlete at the highest level making an impact at a Black college.
The tour's conclusion was an opportunity to learn more about Black history, with visits to some of Washington's museums and historical landmarks. Shuffling through tourist-influenced downtown traffic, the group stopped Thursday evening at the Washington Monument and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln Memorials for selfies and a history lesson.
With the tour coming to an end, the group stopped at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Friday morning. Museum curator of sports Damion Thomas welcomed the group with a private informal session at the Oprah Winfrey Theater. Thomas informed the group about the museum's importance, and of the historic building holding millions of dollars' worth of artifacts. Opening in 2016, the NMAAHC has welcomed more than nine million visitors with the average person spending five hours in attendance. With five floors ascending from the roots of slavery to the present day, students were split into groups and given time (and grace) to learn more about Black history at its best and worst. The group gathered for lunch at the museum's Sweet Home Cafe over an assortment of soul food staples like catfish, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese and collard greens. After taking group photos and individual selfies all over the historic ground, the group boarded the bus en route to the airport. For a week, the WHOLE Mentoring group got a taste of being a college student at a Black college, equipped with responsibility (hotel room keys; per diem), but free to take in a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They now head back to school with a new perspective on life on the other side of the country, and a broader view on higher education choices.
More than a dozen local young Black students participating in the WHOLE Mentoring program took a once-in-a-lifetime trip to tour six Historically Black Colleges and Universities on the east coast in partnership with the Seahawks, Microsoft and The BE Project.