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Houston Hopes Thursday’s Democratic Debate at Historically Black University Drives Conversation

Democratic White House candidates will have a unique opportunity to address younger voters and voters of color during the next debate at Texas Southern University, one of the country’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities and also an Hispanic-Serving Institution. 

Thursday’s conversation among 10 presidential hopefuls marks the first presidential campaign debate at an HBCU since 2007, when Democratic candidates faced off at Howard University and South Carolina State University. It also marks a departure from the first two 2019 Democratic debates, which took place at venues on Miami’s downtown Biscayne Boulevard and a remade downtown Detroit.

Texas Southern is located in Houston’s Third Ward, a place of rich black history and also what TSU Prof. Robert Bullard, a prominent sociologist, has called “the city’s most diverse black neighborhood and a microcosm of the larger black Houston community.” 

Between the 1930s and after World War II, white families abandoned the Third Ward for the suburbs and black families migrated to the Houston neighborhood from East Texas, Louisiana, and other parts of the South. Black businesses, religious institutions and newspapers cropped up. The community also came to be considered the cradle of Houston’s civil rights movement because of young people’s move to desegregate a lunch counter there in 1960. 

Over the years, the Third Ward produced notables like actor Phylicia Rashad, singer and philanthropist Beyonce, and late muralist John Bigger. The 80-year-old TSU graduated icons like late U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan and late U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland. The 150-acre campus is considered the cornerstone of the neighborhood.

Houston City Councilman and mayoral candidate Dwight Boykins, whose district includes TSU and who is a graduate of the school, says the neighborhood is abuzz about Thursday’s debate.

“The problem we’re having is we don’t have enough seats,” Boykins told Fortune in a telephone interview. 

“TSU’s selection reflects positively on the university and will provide students with the opportunity to help shape the debate on the future of our nation,” he said. “More than 10,000 students of diverse backgrounds attend TSU and hold wide-ranging views and perspectives on what should be the priorities of our next president.”

The homeownership proponent who grew up in public housing in the neighborhood said affordable housing is one of the top issues in the region. He hopes the candidates touch on that at the debate, which he’ll attend.

The fact that this debate is taking place at an HBCU sends a message, said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist based in Columbia, S.C.

“It speaks to who the party is and the constituencies that are important to the party, considering that the Democratic Party’s most loyal voting bloc is African-American,” Seawright told Fortune. “Younger voters represent the future of the party and the candidates know how to count and understand long-term math.”

HBCUs evolved after the end of slavery, when few schools of higher education would accept black students. As an answer, black churches established HBCUs, primarily throughout the South. The first such school created after the Civil War was Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., founded in 1865. People such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Ida B. Wells graduated from HBCUs.

As Predominantly White Institutions, schools where at least half of the student body is white, began to accept students of color, enrollment at some HBCUs dropped and a handful of them shut down. 

While the Trump administration has been accused of being unfriendly toward people of color, it has been supportive of the survival of HBCUs. Last year, President Trump appointed Johnny Taylor, a longtime advocate for HBCUs, as chair of the President’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The debate at TSU will likely cost the institution in terms of security and logistics, but will indirectly help the country learn about HBCUs, Taylor told Fortune in a telephone interview.

“It will raise the visibility of the institution,” Taylor said. “HBCUs are a group of institutions that have a storied history but have less awareness in this millennial generation.”

Taylor, who also is president and CEO of the Washington-based Society for Human Resource Management, is a walking, talking HBCU commercial, making sure to point out that late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall enrolled at Howard University School of Law because his hometown school, the University of Maryland, was segregated.

TSU has the distinction of not only being classified as an HBCU and a Hispanic-Serving Institution, which means a quarter of its student body is Latino, but also a Minority Serving Institution, Taylor said. The debate will give the candidates a chance to experience one of the most diverse campuses in the country, Taylor said.

Angela Blanchard, a globally recognized expert in community development and the assimilation of immigrants, said that the debate also will give candidates an opportunity to be more aware of the issue of immigration. The raw discourse over building a wall to separate Mexico from the United States is particularly poignant in Houston, just 360 miles from the border.

Blanchard has lived in the TSU neighborhood for 35 years. She has watched gentrification create new dynamics and has seen the threat of deportation permeate everyone’s lives. 

“There isn’t anyone who doesn’t know someone with a fear and a threat over their head,” Blanchard said. “We all know people whose lives have been impacted.”

Blanchard also said there are students on the TSU campus facing all the challenges that are front and center right now in America. She hopes the candidates pick up on that, she said.

“Some students go to TSU hungry and fall asleep in class because they work the overnight shift,” she said. “I know we have people that don’t have access to health care. I know we have people that are terrified of being separated from their families or have been separated from their families.”

Jay Kumar Aiyer, a public policy consultant and former educator with TSU, says Thursday’s debate will present a unique opportunity for the White House hopefuls to offer ideas about their surroundings. For instance, at the first debate in Miami, candidates sparred over immigration.

Harris County, where Houston is located, only weeks ago reformed its bail system. Houston “is at the epicenter” of places reviewing bail reform and criminal justice reform, Aiyer said. He hopes candidates discuss incarceration and its related issues.

Gentrification also should be part of the talks, he said. 

“It’s not often talked about,” Aiyer said. “The idea of economic development and providing opportunities for all communities is something we hope gets spoken to.”

In terms of candidates, the location could prove a boon for U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., whose poll numbers dropped after she attacked Biden at the July Democratic debate in Detroit for touting his association with segregationist senators.

“I honestly think Sen. Harris being an HBCU graduate and member of a very prominent sorority helps,” said Seawright, referring to the fact that Harris received her undergraduate degree from Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, and is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Seawright also thinks the visit could boost Biden, who as vice president worked with President Obama to steer funding toward HBCUs.

Boykins, however, does not agree that Harris will be received well, and said that Harris’ sparring match with the former vice president did not sit well in a place that prides itself on southern hospitality.

Overall, however, this city in Texas is happy to have the national spotlight.

“We’re excited to have the debate here,” Aiyer said. “Anything that shines a light on the city and the issues that we face here is something we welcome. Houston and this area are strong and vital and diverse. We feel like we’re the city of now.”

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