Thursday’s presidential debate isn’t just an opportunity for the leading Democratic candidates to make their case to voters. It’s also a chance to highlight Texas Southern University and the role of historically black colleges and universities heading into 2020.

The event marks the first time this cycle that a high-profile debate will happen at an HBCU. The colleges, many located across the South in Super Tuesday and other early primary states, have become an important stop on the campaign trail this cycle.

Candidates including Warren and Bernie Sanders have included funding for HBCUs in their platforms, and Kamala Harris, the lone HBCU graduate in the race, has proposed a plan to increase teacher pay that includes HBCUs and addresses a shortage of teachers of color.

It’s a nod to the strength of black voters, the backbone of the Democratic Party. But equally important is the chance to reach out to tap into a network of students, graduates, their family members, faculty and others connected to the country’s more than 100 HBCUs — a unique web of potential voters, donors, organizers and volunteers.

“You’re talking about a sphere of influence that easily goes well into the millions,” said Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University. “When you put that together, you have a strong base and a very significant movement.”

HBCUs have long played a role in Democratic politics, accounting for 40% of black Americans currently serving in Congress and black mayors in cities like Atlanta, New Orleans and St. Paul, Minnesota. In 2018, two of the three black Democratic gubernatorial candidates were HBCU alums: Stacey Abrams, a graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta and Andrew Gillum of Florida, a graduate of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, where he also served as mayor.

Harris, a 1986 graduate of Howard, is the first major candidate for president who is an HBCU alum since the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a graduate of South Carolina State, ran in 1984 and 1988. She stopped at her alma mater in January as part of her campaign launch, and has added a section to her website encouraging HBCU students and alumni to show their support for her.