(WORDINBLACK.COM) – Born into slavery some 250 years ago, America’s first Black Churches – clapboard prayer houses — opened their doors to thousands of Africans to learn how to read and write, even when white slave masters forbade it.

Before the Civil War, the nation’s first Historically Black Colleges and Universities grew out of southern Black churches, which then required their pastors to have college degrees.

Just as Black churches wouldn’t let slave masters stop them from lifting their people up through education and the word of God, in 2021 they won’t let the COVID-19 pandemic keep them down.

On Feb. 26, Sacramento State and eight historically Black churches, several dating back to before the Civil War, took their message of educational empowerment into cyberspace. The so-called Virtual Super Sunday event preached “accessibility, affordability and social mobility” in a one-hour on-line presentation giving Black families all the tools they needed to send their young scholars to Sac State and other colleges in the State University system. Similar Zoom recruiting fairs were being held at 23 State universities up and down California. 

“We’ve reached more than a million students since 2008,” said Dr. Marcellene Watson-Derbigny, Associate Vice President for Student Retention and Academic Success at Sac State.

For the past 13 years, state universities have sent representatives into Black churches to show Black students the path to higher education, inspired by Black pastors and choirs.  But this year, all the experts could be accessed in the one-hour zoom session: admissions, financial aid and Sac State’s Martin Luther King Jr. Center and Educational Opportunity Program, both of which embrace and support Black students from the moment they apply.

Barely 6 percent of Sac State’s students are Black in a city that’s 13 percent Black, but that number has been rising thanks to Super Sunday, said Dr. Watson-Derbigny.  

“After the event there’s a follow up from our admissions and outreach office helping students apply and gain admission, and every summer the MLK Center hosts a month-long welcome for all African American students to provide support, mentoring, tutoring, coaching and academic support through a success center and then they graduate.”

This year, the following representatives from the following churches participated in the virtual Super Sunday to bring the message back to their congregations: O Logos Alive; Center of Praise Ministries; Shiloh Baptist Church; Antioch Progressive; Calvary Christian Center (with all five campus locations participating); St. Paul Baptist Church; Kyles Temple AME Zion;

Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church; and delegates from the Greater Sacramento & Vicinity Baptist Ministers Alliance.

“It was a good presentation given the limitations that come with a Zoom meeting,” said Rev. Anthony Sadler of Shiloh Baptist Church, founded in 1856 in a building in Old Sacramento once used by a Chinese Christian congregation.  Sacramento State President Dr. Robert S. Nelsen came to Shiloh in person before COVID, and the live engagement went off so well, “a number of my high school students who may not have gone to Sac State have been enrolled, including one young woman who made a Super Sunday connection and went back to Sac State for her master’s,” Rev. Sadler said.  He added that another family in their congregation has sent four siblings to Sac State.

“In our culture, church is an incubator of higher education, it opens up possibilities and makes them real, facilitating that for not only the potential student but the parents or grandparents over them,” said Rev. Sadler, whose church also provides scholarships and financial aid.

A key player on virtual Super Sunday, Kaifa Yates, 34, just got his master’s in Education Technology from Sac State and knew all about Zoom before COVID-19 arrived on the scene.

Yates now serves as an outreach coordinator for Sac State’s MLK Jr. Center. “My job is to go into the classrooms, go into the community to let them know we support African American students and help them with budgeting, social needs, academics, staying in school and graduating,” he said. “We support about 2,193 students, every single one of them – the minute they get on campus we start sending them information, to workshops and I’m creating a Canvas Course for them to use as a resource guide.”

Yates, who knows five students from Calvary Christian Center who attended Super Sunday in 2020 and are now at Sac State, said “they just have to see people who look like them talking about the university. If they don’t have that connection, they’re not going to apply, they don’t want to go anywhere that seems foreign. Sac State is a PWI, a predominantly white institution, and the Black parents know me as well, they can email me, call me. I tell them about the Black experience at Sac State and they’re excited about it, they want to be a part of it.”

About 50 students and parents attended virtual Super Sunday, Yates said, less than show up at all the live church experiences. But since this year’s event lives on in cyberspace and provides a one-stop shopping guide in one hour makes it a “good bridge to increase the number of Black students.”

For more information on the CSU’s Super Sundays, visit https://www2.calstate.edu/impact-of-the-csu/community/super-sunday

By Stephen Magagnini, OBSERVER Correspondent

Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.