While it may not seem like much, to Morgan State University President David Wilson growing up, $5 was the result of years of savings.

Morgan State University President David Wilson says, “I think we have to shift the dialogue from, ‘are HBCUs still needed’ to ‘how do we resource those institutions that historically have produced the talent that has already made America great.”

Morgan State University President David Wilson says, “I think we have to shift the dialogue from, ‘are HBCUs still needed’ to ‘how do we resource those institutions that historically have produced the talent that has already made America great.”

The youngest of 10 children, Wilson grew up in poverty in rural Alabama at a time when there were no laws requiring Black kids to go to school. His father was a sharecropper, and Wilson spent his first five years of school in a one-room shanty on the grounds of a Black church, with all five grades in the same room with one teacher. He would only go to school two or three days in a week, with the rest of his time spent helping on his family’s farm. At that time, he didn’t even know what college was.

He would read the pages of Look and Life magazines his mother had plastered on the wall which taught him about the world, and he aspired to be more than what his parents were. When he brought those aspirations to his father, he was told that college was for “White folks.”

He worked hard to get into Tuskegee, and the morning he left for college, his father stopped to tell him that he was very proud of him, and that he had discouraged him from going to college because he felt there was no way he could afford to send his son to school. He reached into the pocket of his overalls and gave his son the “piece of money” he had saved over the five years since Wilson had first talked about college, and told him to use it wisely.

When he finally looked at the money his father had given him, in his hand was a crisp $5 bill.

Though he was initially angry about it, Wilson thought about that $5 as his career unfolded. He went on to earn degrees from Tuskegee and Harvard universities before becoming the first Black vice president of Auburn University and eventually chancellor of University of Wisconsin System’s 13 two-year colleges.

Wilson did not know much about Morgan State University when the chair of Morgan’s presidential search committee convinced him to fly out from Wisconsin to look at the campus. He came in baseball cap and jeans, and said that he had an emotional experience he had never had at the predominately white institutions he had previously worked.

“I have to say that it immediately took me back to Tuskegee, immediately took me back to that shanty, immediately as I looked into the faces of these young men and young ladies on the campus, it immediately said, ‘that’s you,’” Wilson said. “And I heard my father say, ‘It’s time to repay me.’”

Wilson was inaugurated in 2010 and he pledged $100,000 to start the $5 Scholarship Fund to honor his father. In his office to this day, he keeps a framed $5 bill, a photo of his father, a dirt sample from around their house in Alabama, and a symbol of a bale of cotton among other memorabilia which he said helps keep him grounded.

Coming from better resourced institutions, he relies upon his mother’s innovation and ingenuity in keeping his childhood home together to piece together what Morgan has to take care of the school and its students.

“I think one of the challenges that some HBCU presidents face is that they become so frustrated, especially if they have come up within institutions that are not HBCUs,” Wilson said. “They become so frustrated early on by what they don’t have that they struggle, and here I try to concentrate on what we do have and to make the best of .”

He works to reduce and remove barriers to “access and success” that today’s students face, like financial barriers. In trying to improve the overall education experience for Morgan’s students, the school is working on a partnership that Wilson hopes will lead to the redevelopment of Northwood Shopping Center.

Today, Morgan produces large percentages of Maryland’s Black STEM degree recipients, and Wilson noted that with the changing demographics in the future that will lead to a non-white majority in the population, he hopes to have a new science complex and an expansion of the engineering school to propel Morgan to be the number one research HBCU in the country.

“We are going to position ourselves to be that institution that will educate a disproportionate number of the majority population in the state in the future as well as those outside of the state who want a unique, high quality, undergraduate education in fields that will promote entrepreneurship and innovation,” Wilson said.

Wilson said he has also been regularly advocating for state and federal funding, and hopes to see more major investment in the future. He has been invited to the White House for a visit at the end of February, even though President Trump hasn’t proclaimed an official stance on preserving and protecting HBCUs. Wilson said that today, HBCUs need to be at center of the conversation about America’s competitiveness

“I think we have to shift the dialogue from, ‘are HBCUs still needed’ to ‘how do we resource those institutions that historically have produced the talent that has already made America great,’” Wilson said. “I mean, the talent that has come out of HBCUs is the talent that’s created the black middle class in this country.”