Emily Riewestahl is from Grantsburg, Wisconsin, a small, predominantly white town. Her family? White. Her school? White. Her neighborhood? White. When it was time for Riewestahl to go to college, she landed in New Orleans at Xavier University, which is historically and predominantly black.
Riewestahl is among the growing number of non-black students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Administrators at many of these schools maintain that a diverse student population is necessary for their economic survival, arguing that tuition paid by students from other racial backgrounds helps keep the doors open. But the presence of white students at HBCUs is not without controversy. Is it the duty of HBCUs to strive to be diverse and inclusive, or is this an invasion of black spaces?
There are more than 100 HBCUs in the United States, and they emerged from a specific history of educational exclusion in this country. Many private HBCUs were founded immediately after the Civil War by white Northern missionaries and philanthropists seeking to offer educational opportunities to formerly enslaved black men and women. Some offered training in basic skills initially to serve the newly emancipated. It was only later that they became full-fledged colleges. Most of the public HBCUs were established by Southern states that refused to allow black citizens access to the existing system of higher education, preferring instead to create a dual track that would keep black and white students separate.
Even though many HBCUs were founded with segregationist intent, black students, teachers, and communities transformed these spaces into lasting pillars of the black community. HBCUs laid the intellectual, scholarly, social, and even political foundations of African-Americans for decades. They are important symbols. But as American education has changed, so have HBCUs. “It’s the reality of desegregation,” said associate professor of history at Kentucky State Crystal A. deGregory, PhD, who studies the histories of HBCUs. “HBCUs need to persist and exist,” she said about their need for diversity.
White Student, Black Space
Riewestahl, a senior psychology major at Xavier, said her first real experience of racial diversity occurred when she visited New Orleans on a choir trip, where she saw many different social classes and ethnic backgrounds coexist. When Riewestahl, 20, started considering colleges, she was drawn to Xavier’s pre-med program. Riewestahl received a full-tuition scholarship; she considered the fact that Xavier is an HBCU a bonus.
Riewestahl’s education extended beyond what she was taught in class. With the white-student population of Xavier at 2.3 percent, she learned what it’s like to be the only person of her race in the room, an experience many people of color know all too well. “When I first got here I felt alienated,” she said. “However, as time passed, I realized a lot of it was self-inflicted.” Attending Xavier enabled her to be more comfortable around people of color, an experience that might not have happened in Wisconsin. Back home, many of her friends and family questioned her decision to attend Xavier.
“You don’t ask people of color why they attend a predominantly white institution,” she said.
The change in demographics
Data show that HBCUs around the country have experienced an increase in non-black student enrollment. For example, at Kentucky State University the proportion of non-black students rose from 44 percent in 2007 to 52 percent in 2017. And at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis the black student population dropped from 90 percent to 80 percent in the same decade. During this time, the Asian and Latino student population at Harris-Stowe increased by 4 percent.
Or consider the curious case of historically black colleges that no longer have majority-black student populations. Bluefield State College in West Virginia was initially founded to educate the children of black coal miners. For years the campus has been majority white. According to data from the college, in fall 2017, white students were 84.7 percent of Bluefield State College population and black students were only 8.4 percent.
Kimberly Gross, communications director for Bluefield State, said the low black-student enrollment is because it is primarily a commuter campus that serves the nearby, mostly white, counties. This is an accurate, but incomplete response. The struggle over Bluefield State racial demographics and its status as a commuter campus are tied up in a turbulent history; in the 1960s it ejected black students from what was once a residential campus.
But Bluefield State may be seeking to return to having a more robust black-student population. The school seeks financial opportunities for all students, sends recruiters to HBCU fairs and searches for new ways to diversify the student population. BSC is also raising money to build a new residence hall on campus to attract more students. “While we are a diverse HBCU, we understand the need to balance the demographics on our campus to promote understanding and enhance the cultural experience for our students, faculty, and staff,” Gross said.
#MyHBCU, Preserving the Black Space
For African-American students enrolled at HBCUs, the presence of white students on campus raises questions about their ability to choose a learning environment centered on their own cultural experiences. Some black students consider HBCUs their safe spaces to learn and wonder if white students’ presence will disrupt their education, recreating some of the racial problems they sought to avoid by attending a black college.
TiBerni Hall, a black third-year history major at Xavier, said the beauty of an HBCU is how it enables African Americans to be educated in a place all their own. She doesn’t want white students to be denied admission to HBCUs, but she’s concerned about maintaining a black presence at HBCUs—especially among professors.
“If you aren’t learning from someone that looks like you, you could think that it’s not possible for someone that looks like you to be in that position,” Hall, 20, said noting an underrepresentation of black professors in science, technology, engineering, and math.
Ian Becareaux, 20, a white pharmacy student at Xavier and a New Orleans native, said he chose his school because of its strong academic programs. He doesn’t see his presence as an invasion, and he hopes other students don’t either. “No matter what, the values and history of Xavier won’t change. It will always be an HBCU,” he said.
Lavelle Smith-Grant, a Chicago native and black criminal-justice major in his fourth year at Lincoln University, believes the large white-student presence at his HBCU doesn’t affect the campus culture. In 2013, Lincoln University showed a 35 percent black-student enrollment and 55 percent white-student enrollment. In 2017 white enrollment dropped to 41 percent, according to campus data. Lincoln University is located in the mostly white town of Jefferson City, Missouri. Smith-Grant said white students appear to be thriving there. He said he sees them earning many academic awards, but they don’t seem to show any school spirit. “There are very few white students on campus that engage in school activities and sports events,” said Smith-Grant, who wonders if there is a cultural disconnect with white students. “They come for the opportunities and leave.”
Teachable Moments for White People in Black Spaces
DeGregory, who is the founder of HBCU Story, an advocacy initiative that preserves and promotes HBCU history, and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of HBCU Research and Culture, said the white presence at HBCUs shouldn’t be a surprise because these institutions always accepted students of every race.
Jayna Proffitt, a recent graduate from Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas, and who is white, said she always felt welcome at her HBCU. “I love my HBCU,” said Proffitt, who is from LaMarque, Texas, a predominantly black town. “At PVAMU the color of your skin doesn’t matter as long as you’re taking care of business and treating others with respect.”
Prairie View is her second home, Proffitt said. Most days she doesn’t think of herself as “the white student” because she’s more than that. She’s a member of the band sorority and she feels that she contributes to the culture of her school. DeGregory believes white students attending HBCUs should not cause alarm, because their presence gives all students the opportunity to learn from one another.
“HBCUs have an opportunity to educate white students about the beauty of black culture, debunk stereotypes, and build bridges,” she said.