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Historically Black Colleges and Universities, most of which are concentrated in the South, hold contrasting legacies as both safe havens for Black students and frequent targets of violence. Last week, Scalawag hosted a live Twitter conversation with journalists who are both current and former students of HBCUs to discuss the broader contexts they have experienced and written about around student safety.
This is a conversation with renewed urgency: As panelist Adam Harris, a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The State Must Provide, pointed out, there hasn't been a week in February this year without a bomb threat at an HBCU. The latest string of threats began in January at some schools, with at least 14 HBCUs reporting bomb threats on the first day of Black History Month. Two weeks ago, the FBI identified as many as six suspects—all juveniles—but no one has yet been publicly charged in connection with the threats, and no explosives found.
As current Florida A&M University student Noella Williams brought up, the bomb threats are not the only reason HBCU students have been worried about their safety. This month, leaked videos showed a local Nazi group had plans to march through FAMU's campus. And, as Williams has written about for the publication them, queer students have long struggled to feel welcomed or protected on their campuses.
Scalawag held this conversation to ground the current moment within the legacy of HBCUs, formed primarily in the South after the Civil War when white institutions banned Black folks from pursuing higher education. We also want to provide more nuance, especially around what it means to be wholly safe at an HBCU: From sexual assault, to food and housing insecurity, to queer expression. These issues are always delicate to navigate, as Black folks of varied experiences tend to err on the side of not airing dirty laundry—no matter how soiled it is. Nevertheless, accountability is an act of love and community building.
—Ko Bragg (Spelman College, 2015) is Scalawag's Race & Place editor.
Da'Shaun Harrison (Morehouse College, 2018) is Scalawag's editor-at-large and the author of Belly of the Beast.
Adam Harris (Alabama A&M, 2012) is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The State Must Provide.
Alexis Wray (North Carolina A&T State University, 2020) is a reporting fellow with Reckon.
Noella Williams (Florida A&M University, 2022) is a senior journalism student at Florida A&M University, where they transferred in 2019.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full recording:
On the legacy of HBCUs as both safe havens and targets:
Adam Harris: I typically start with the fact that America has always had a really antagonistic relationship with Black education. In 1740, South Carolina banned teaching enslaved people to read and write, and several states followed with similar anti-literacy laws. Even through the 1830s and '40s, states were passing and enforcing these anti-literacy laws, where you had $500 fines for teaching a Black person to read. So there's always been this deeply antagonistic relationship with Black education. When you think about the foundation and the formation of HBCUs, you cannot situate their creation outside of that antagonistic relationship: People were doing something that a lot of folks in America did not want to happen—they were trying to teach Black people.
There's evidence that when these institutions were created, there was a deep thirst for knowledge—in spite of all of the danger that might have come alongside it. One early example that I often point to as evidence of intentional state underfunding and how they were trying to derail them from the beginning is Alcorn State University down in Mississippi. It was founded in 1871 by the reconstruction government, and they were given a guaranteed appropriation of $50,000 a year for at least a decade. But five years later, when the Redeemers came in with their "White Revolution," that appropriation was reduced to $15,000 a year. And then $5,500 a year, immediately after it. If you look at Montgomery, there were years where the state of Alabama would not fund the Alabama State University. There were some legal shifts, but mainly it was because folks in Montgomery didn't want Alabama State to be relocated there. But while there has always been this history of states intentionally trying to undermine these institutions, on the back end there has also been a resilience at these institutions. The ones that remain now have had to bounce back in spite of all of that.
On being a current HBCU student:
Noella Williams: We recently received a warning from Tallahassee Students for a Democratic Society—which is an organization that is next door to us and Florida State University—that they have word and leaked conversations from a Nazi group called Patriot Front who are planning to promote their fascist views, and also just vandalize our campus. Whether it's with their Nazi stickers or just holding a presence on our campus, it's obviously very disturbing as a student at a school that has not really offered any safety plans for us. FAMU sent us an email when the bomb threats happened in the beginning of February that pretty much shaded a just very brief statement, which felt very absent of an actual action plan. They sent us a PDF from Homeland Security. It just felt like our lives and safety weren't being protected. Our campus is very open. There's no kind of barrier, and our library doesn't have any kind of sign in procedure to get inside. The most that we receive is a text about if there's a nearby shooting or robbery on campus. But besides that, as far as a potential bombing, or as far as a student having any concern about sexual assaults on campus, it just feels like FAMU lacks protection of the students in any way.
On shifting the narrative about HBCUs, and the Black communities surrounding them:
Alexis Wray: Something that I really wanted to bring to the conversation today was around resiliency. A lot of conversation I've been hearing around resiliency, specifically from leaders of HBCUs across the nation, is encouraging students to be strong and to not be scared or fearful during this time. I just can't help but think about the fact that Black students are always expected to be strong, to show up, and be resilient—even when they are reading things in the media about their institution that are incorrect and inaccurate, and are painting them in a narrative that is demeaning, belittling, and harmful.
This moment is really impactful to bring back up some of the reporting that I did a few years ago [for Scalawag], because it just shows how relevant words are in the way that we talk about our institutions. Now that HBCUs are being painted in a different light because of these bomb threats, we're hearing, "Oh, protect students! Protect Black education and Black excellence!" So it's interesting to see how with time—and with the media—things like that will shift or flip back, and history repeats itself.
On holding HBCUs accountable for on-campus violence:
Da'Shaun Harrison: I came into Morehouse in 2014, exactly around the time of Ferguson. For those who don't know, Spelhouse is a full week of new student orientation. That week is when Mike Brown was murdered. Then in November, still during my first semester, we got the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who murdered Mike Brown. It's the same year that Tamir Rice was murdered, as well as Eric Garner. That was the start of the campus-based organizing body called AUC Shut It Down. So much about what we were doing there was dealing with how we had all of these feelings as Black college students at a Black institution, and yet there was no space on campus for us to really channel these feelings. There had to be a way to be able to navigate all these feelings that we had about state violence and police violence happening in the world—as well as all of the queer and trans antagonism happening on campus, and all of the sexual violence. There was a lot of work that we had to do to be able to bring these issues to the forefront. And that, in so many ways, placed those of us who were understood as "primary organizers," or more hyper-visible organizers, in harm's way—because a lot of the administration were deeply committed to upholding this persona that these institutions were there to protect Black students and build Black leaders. So when you have Black students on campus saying, "Actually, we've experienced a lot of violence on this campus, and no one protects us," it damages the image that Spelman and Clark and Morehouse portray about themselves.
When I heard about the the bomb threats that were happening just this month, for me, it felt like one of the first times, in my experience, that I could say, "Wow, this is something that's violent for HBCUs, but not necessarily something that is violent for the students who are attending these institutions." Because that sort of violence is always happening on campus, and it's oftentimes not spoken about.
Noella Williams: It's really sad that organizations on our campus either aren't encouraged to be there and show up, or we just don't have spaces like that on campus. I always tell people that I wish there were more spaces for Black liberation on our campuses. It would encourage more engagement of the capitol, it would encourage more Black feminist thought, and it would encourage more queer culture. It's just very disappointing to hear that other people share the same sentiment, that the only thing their campuses could do during pride month is put an Instagram post up that kind of just didn't do anything but said, "Happy pride! We love you!" And there's no action. Besides that there's nothing. It's disappointing when my HBCU just doesn't encourage a lot of things that we need to move towards Black liberation or making sure that people understand that this is a safe space for all Black people, not just one type of Black person.
Final takeaways on safety, harm, and the future of HBCUs:
Adam Harris: The leaders of historical Black colleges have often been incredibly conservative. It's been the students who have been the ones who have had to push for more. Even thinking about how at Hampton University, where my sister went, the students would have to wear business attire to class on Mondays to prepare to wear business attire. There was this respectability thing that was happening there as well. There's a tightrope that HBCU leaders are often walking, which does lead to a really tense relationship with the student body.
Alexis Wray: There are a lot of conversations that HBCU students are having about diversity on their campuses, and a huge push from their administrators to get more diverse students on campus. I was talking to a student at NC A&T the other day about how they came to an HBCU so that they could feel socially, and culturally, and mentally safe. Now with the bomb threats, they wouldn't have imagined that their physical safety would be this other consideration of importance in their life. HBCUs are pushing to fill seats in classrooms with faces that aren't Black and brown. That can also feel unsafe to HBCU students.
Da'Shaun Harrison: I think that oftentimes people make it seem like we're wanting to hold our institutions accountable, because we want them to be better. That is true for a lot of people, but a lot of people have also been deeply damaged and hurt and violated by their institutions. I think that it's okay for folks to be a part of these conversations if they don't love their institutions. It doesn't take away from their love of Blackness or take away from their love of who they are. I can recognize this as a place where I have been deeply harmed, and I don't love it. But what I do love are the other Black folks who come behind me, and who will be in this space—and I'm hoping that there's something I can do for them that makes this space better for them.