Rep. Alma Adams said it’s merely a coincidence that she’s revving up her activity on historically black colleges and universities next week at the same time President Donald Trump is scaling back his.
"Some spokesperson in the White House made some comment that we were doing this to outshine the president," Adams said. "That’s not the case."
Not that Adams is worried about what the White House thinks. The Charlotte Democrat has emerged as a chief critic of a stalled black college initiative that Trump launched with great fanfare in February, and she has staked out space on Capitol Hill as a go-to advocate for the nation’s 100-plus historically black colleges and universities.
"We all advocate for HBCUs, but Alma has just taken it to another level," said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. "She has engaged the other side, she consistently speaks to presidents of HBCUs. She keeps them on task. And she makes the White House accountable for what they say to HBCUs."
Adams was one of the first congressional lawmakers to call for the administration to postpone a White House conference on black colleges next week, noting last month that Trump hasn’t delivered on promises he made in an HBCU executive order that he signed in February.
Trump vowed to move the HBCU portfolio out of the Department of Education and into the White House and appoint an executive director to oversee it. No one has yet been named.
Adams also noted that Trump’s comment that "both sides" were responsible for August’s deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va., organized by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, would also make some black college presidents and chancellors uncomfortable at the White House.
"They haven’t done anything to this point," Adams said of the administration. "To have the folks come back up there when they’re disappointed from the first trip – obviously it doesn’t appear they (the administration) have placed a lot of emphasis, and certainly not a priority, on this initiative…I know that (HBCU presidents) don’t feel valued or listened to."
The White House initially balked at Adams’ postponement call, which was echoed by the Congressional Black Caucus, the United Negro College Fund, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and others.
Omarosa Manigault-Newman, director of communications for the White House’s Office of Public Liaison, told McClatchy last month that Trump’s "commitment to the HBCU community remains strong and unwavering" and the registration for the conference "is currently at capacity."
But the White House has significantly scaled back an annual gathering of the nation’s historically black colleges presidents and advocates next week after a series of potentially offensive actions by Trump, including his much maligned statement this summer on the deadly race-fueled rally in Charlottesville.
Organizers worried some presidents would not attend and students would protest the event that was initially scheduled to be held at a hotel just outside the nation’s capital, according to three people familiar with the situation. Instead, the summit will be held Sunday and Monday at the White House complex, where only invited guests who undergo a background check are allowed to attend.
At the summit, the White House is expected to announce a long-awaited executive director for the White House Initiative on HBCUs, a new federal employee who will work on HBCU issues at the Department of Education, and appointees to the president's Advisory Board, according to several sources familiar with the announcement. Trump, who will be in New York for the United National General Assembly meeting, is not expected to attend.
While the White House has downsized its HBCU event, Adams and the black caucus are hosting their first-ever HBCU brain trust in Washington during the caucus’s annual legislative week.
The black lawmakers have organized a day on Capitol Hill next week for HBCU presidents to meet with House and Senate Democrats; a luncheon with black college leaders and corporate executives; a session to celebrate the 150th anniversary of nine black colleges, including North Carolina’s Johnson C. Smith University, Barber-Scotia College, Fayetteville State University, and Washington, D.C.’s Howard University.
A White House aide told Politico in August that the black caucus HBCU activities were "competing" events created to show up Trump.
"They’re doing an event to compete against the White House because they don’t want President Trump to have a victory," the aide told Politico.
Not so, Adams said.
"We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do," she said. "And I think it’s even more important now that we come out of here with some sort of substantive strategy because there’s been a sort of (re)laxing " by the Trump administration on black colleges.
HBCUs include more than 100 schools established before 1964 with the principal mission of educating African Americans, who were often barred from attending predominantly white schools in the pre-civil rights era. The institutions serve about 300,000 students nationwide and receive money from the federal government through grants, contracts, appropriations and financial aid.
The schools received $4.7 billion in federal financial assistance in 2013, according to the latest report available. That sum accounted for 2.8 percent of federal dollars awarded to all higher education institutions.
Adams’ interest in black colleges is personal. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from North Carolina A&T State University in 1968 and 1972 before earning a Ph.D at Ohio State University. She taught at art at Bennett College, an HBCU in Greensboro, N.C., for 40 years.
"What they did for me, to even take me in when I was not fully academically prepared when I left high school in New Jersey, that’s what HBCUs do," she said. "They see the potential in students, they want to provide that opportunity."
Adams, 71, saw an opportunity to be a leading voice on HBCUs when she arrived in Congress in 2014. In 2015, she helped form the Bipartisan HBCU Caucus with Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala. The caucus helps educate lawmakers on HBCUs, assists in drafting legislation, and sponsors an internship program in which HBCU students swap working in Democratic and Republican offices.
"Rep. Alma Adams has provided a voice for making our nation's HBCUs more of a priority for the U.S. Congress," said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s president and CEO. "Support for HBCUs is not a Democrat or Republican issue, and she understands that."