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.