The historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States are under attack, it seems, from multiple directions. In recent weeks, numerous HBCUs have reported bomb threats against them. Such threats have hit institutions such as Howard University in Washington, D.C., Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., and Alcorn State in Claiborne County, Miss. It augurs poorly for the current state of race relations, as these schools have long served the Black American community. At the same time, a recent report from Forbes indicated the extent to which land-grant HBCUs—a significant number of these institutions—have been woefully underfunded by state governments since 1987. In both cases, we see a continuing attack on not just HBCUs but the very idea of semi-independent Black institutions within the United States.
All of this comes at an already remarkable moment in the history of HBCUs. In recent years, attendance at these institutions has risen, coupled with the rise of Black Lives Matter on the one hand, and a significant white backlash against racial progress on the other. For some students attending HBCUs, the perceived safety they provide against backlash and the feeling of alienation on the campuses of many predominantly white institutions is a valuable reason to attend an HBCU. Sports programs at HBCUs continue to attract the best of Black athletic talent in the nation. Deion Sanders’s coaching at Jackson State, as one example, shows how even retired Black athletes have begun to give back to HBCUs as coaches.
Yet the actions that have jarred students, faculty, staff, and alumni at these institutions should not be surprising. Since the founding of the earliest HBCUs in the 19th century, such schools have always been targets of terrorism and intimidation. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, HBCU buildings were sometimes burned to the ground. A few were forced to change location, and one was even permanently closed. For much of their history, HBCUs have provided the intellectual training for so many of the nation’s greatest leaders. Martin Luther King Jr. earned his undergraduate degree at Morehouse College of Atlanta. Before he graced the halls of Harvard and Humboldt University of Berlin, and set out to determine that the color line would determine the course of the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois studied at Fisk University in Nashville. Mary McLeod Bethune’s education at Scotia Seminary—now Barbara-Scotia College in Concord, N.C.—prepared her for a life devoted to educating others.
What these and so many other stories of Black success at these schools indicate is the importance of Black institutions in a society so often hostile to Black success. That such schools are being targeted with bomb threats today is, unless further information proves otherwise, a clear indication of how that success is still reviled in some corners of American society now. HBCUs produce a large number of Black professionals in numerous careers. Add to that the long tradition of student activism at many of these institutions, and it becomes clear why so many of these places are important for not just Black advancement but also the continuing struggle to realize the dream of a true, multiracial American democracy.
This is what makes protecting HBCUs so important. During the tumult of the civil rights and Black Power movements, HBCUs were a key site of organizing and activism—and not just against Jim Crow segregation or the Vietnam War. Often, students had to struggle against their own college presidents just to have the right to protest, since those presidents needed monetary support from pro–Jim Crow Southern state legislatures. From Howard to Voorhees College in Denmark, S.C., and numerous other colleges and universities, students tried to make change for both their universities and the broader community.
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We Are Witnessing the First Stages of Civilization’s Collapse
We Are Witnessing the First Stages of Civilization’s Collapse
The murder of students from South Carolina State during the Orangeburg Massacre of February 1968 and of Jackson State students in May 1970, both during otherwise peaceful protests, is also a reminder of how HBCU students understand the dangers inherent in the pursuit of justice and freedom. The killings at Jackson State are particularly telling, as they took place on the campus itself and involved members of both the local police force and the Mississippi Highway Patrol. Overshadowed by the Kent State shooting that took place 11 days before, the Jackson State tragedy was a reminder of the limits of how safe Black students could feel on their own campus.
We should all also be concerned about HBCUs because of what they could represent in American society. Despite their importance as institutions for Black students, they have not been immune to the problems of neoliberalism that have gripped the academy for decades. The debate between Booker T. Washington, on one hand, and intellectuals such as Du Bois and Anna Julia Cooper, on the other, about the fate of Black education show that this problem stretches back far longer than contemporary arguments about the purpose of a college education.
Du Bois always dreamed that, because of the problems facing them, Black Americans could use their institutions to provide a new, fresh model for education. This, he believed, would turn the tide against an overwhelming tendency of those who attended school to be concerned with just job prospects. In a commencement address to his alma mater, Fisk, in 1958 he stated, “I found to my deep disappointment that the American nation was not interested in supporting the search for knowledge for knowledge’s sake.” Yet, even as he lamented what even Fisk and other Black colleges and universities had become in his eyes—calling Fisk “a refuge for spoiled children”—Du Bois nonetheless believed that such schools still held within them a deeper promise. “We face then,” he argued, “the preservation and cultivation of Negro talent not simply among our rich and well-to-do, but even more among the vast numbers of our poor and outcast; among those locked by the thousands in our jails and penitentiaries.”
This is a mission HBCUs must continue to fulfill today. The latest iteration of white backlash politics that infects every vestige of American life requires it. Ironically, on the day I finished writing the first draft of this piece, my current place of employment—Claflin University—received a bomb threat. The problem is not gone. But the HBCUs that serve as fortresses of Black knowledge and achievement continue to survive.