Black Colleges Become Sanctuaries After Ferguson | The Next America

Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times

Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times

In the midst of a terse na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion about po­lice vi­ol­ence against Black Amer­ic­ans came news that More­house Col­lege, my alma ma­ter and the na­tion’s only all-male his­tor­ic­ally Black col­lege, wel­comed one of its largest fresh­man classes.

More­house is not alone in see­ing a surge in ad­mis­sions in the past year. EDU Inc., which ad­min­is­ters Com­mon Black Col­lege, an on­line tool used to ap­ply to 42 of the more than 100 his­tor­ic­ally Black col­leges and uni­versit­ies with a single form, pro­cessed 10 per­cent more ap­plic­a­tions for the 2015-2016 school year than last year. Pres­id­ent Robert Ma­son says that after a year of news of po­lice killings of young Black Amer­ic­ans, Black stu­dents—Black males in par­tic­u­lar—are look­ing for safe spaces.

New­s­week has run two pieces in the past few weeks de­clar­ing “Black Col­leges Mat­ter.” Aside from de­bat­ing the aca­dem­ic value of HB­CUs and doc­u­ment­ing their tra­di­tions, which The New York Times did re­cently, it’s im­port­ant that these schools are also ac­know­ledged for the unique safety and se­cur­ity they of­fer young Black people.

“I think it can reas­on­ably be con­cluded that safety factors in­to the de­cision-mak­ing pro­cess when stu­dents are de­cid­ing what col­lege to at­tend,” Ma­son said. “I would con­tend that the heightened sense of fear con­cern­ing the safety of Black males has giv­en im­petus to par­ents now em­ploy­ing the same kind of lo­gic that is used to de­term­ine if a col­lege and the sur­round­ing area is safe enough to al­low their daugh­ters to at­tend. Be­fore the in­creased me­dia cov­er­age of vi­ol­ence against Black males and the na­tion­al dia­logue that has en­sued, I don’t think safety was as much of a con­cern for black males when de­cid­ing what col­lege to at­tend.”

In Feb­ru­ary, act­ress Ta­raji P. Hen­son made head­lines when she told Up­town magazine that she was trans­fer­ring her son to her alma ma­ter after he’d been ra­cially pro­filed at the Uni­versity of South­ern Cali­for­nia.

“So guess where he’s go­ing? Howard Uni­versity,” she told Up­town. “I’m not pay­ing $50K so I can’t sleep at night won­der­ing is this the night my son is get­ting ra­cially pro­filed on cam­pus.”

Fol­low­ing Hen­son’s rev­el­a­tion, Es­sence con­duc­ted a poll ask­ing par­ents if they prefer that their chil­dren at­tend an HB­CU. Nearly 80 per­cent said “yes.”

In his first ad­dress to the class of 2019, More­house Pres­id­ent John S. Wilson spoke of the chal­lenges and dangers black men face. “Ac­cord­ing to The New York Times, there are 1.5 mil­lion miss­ing black men in this coun­try,” he poin­ted out. “When you were in ninth grade, there were 320,000 black boys with you, na­tion­ally. Roughly only 160,000 gradu­ated from high school.  And of those, only about 50,000 ap­plied to a four-year col­lege.”

One of the most mov­ing mo­ments dur­ing their ori­ent­a­tion week at More­house is the Par­ent Part­ing Ce­re­mony in which in­com­ing fresh­men, their par­ents, alumni and More­house of­fi­cials as­semble in the chapel. Par­ents are asked to re­lease their sons in­to the hands of “Moth­er More­house.” The com­munity makes a pledge to care for the new stu­dents, and par­ents are in­struc­ted to de­part im­me­di­ately after. Many fam­il­ies shed tears dur­ing the ritu­al.

Nate Ervin, 18, entered More­house this fall to study polit­ic­al sci­ence. He ap­plied to eight schools, four HB­CUs and four pre­dom­in­antly white in­sti­tu­tions. He was ac­cep­ted to all of them but says he chose to at­tend More­house be­cause of its fo­cus on up­lift­ing black men.

“Be­hind these gates, I feel so safe. I really do,” says Ervin. “I feel like black people in Amer­ica have an un­der­stand­ing between each oth­er and there’s re­l­at­ive safety among the group.”

Dani­elle Bro­g­don, 18, is study­ing me­dia, film and journ­al­ism at Howard with a minor in Afric­an-Amer­ic­an stud­ies. She says she thought about study­ing at New York Uni­versity or North­west­ern, but was at­trac­ted to Howard for its net­work of alumni in me­dia but for its pro­tec­tions.

“I have a friend in school in Nashville and she was telling me how she’s wor­ried,” says Bro­g­don. “Nashville is not the black­est com­munity and it’s in the South. She feels like she has to be ex­tra aware of who’s around her and how she in­ter­acts. She’s wor­ried about things like how her school would pro­tect her if she was in an al­ter­ca­tion.”

In a so­ci­ety that des­per­ately wants to be post-ra­cial, many ask if HB­CUs are still rel­ev­ant. It’s this sen­ti­ment that per­haps has al­lowed for a mass di­vest­ment from HB­CUs in the 21st cen­tury. In fact, des­pite the con­tin­ued and very evid­ent need for HB­CUs in edu­cat­ing black stu­dents, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has been slowly chip­ping away at fund­ing in re­cent years.

In­deed, I have nev­er felt more se­cure as a black man than I did as a stu­dent on More­house’s cam­pus.

As the na­tion’s only in­sti­tu­tion of high­er edu­ca­tion foun­ded to serve us, it is a rare space where black men are not vul­ner­able be­cause of their black­ness.

On the con­trary, at More­house and oth­er HB­CUs, black men and wo­men are pro­tec­ted – by a cam­pus po­lice force no less. On cam­pus – and for the first time in my life – I was free to run full speed without caus­ing alarm. I raised my voice in pub­lic, as­ser­ted my­self without in­cit­ing pan­ic. My black­ness did not render me sus­pi­cious or scary. I could in­hab­it every square inch of my six-foot, 200-pound body without risk­ing my life.

HB­CUs are rare Amer­ic­an in­sti­tu­tions in that they are main­tained for the af­firm­a­tion, ad­vance­ment and pro­tec­tion of black life. In a so­ci­ety in which young black people, men and wo­men, have their lives cut short every day by in­car­cer­a­tion and vi­ol­ence – state or oth­er­wise – the schools are sanc­tu­ar­ies from a world at war with black bod­ies.

In his best­selling book, Between the World and Me, au­thor Ta-Ne­hisi Coates de­scribes his ex­per­i­ence at his HB­CU alma ma­ter in such terms. Ad­dress­ing his teen­age son, Coates writes, “My only Mecca was, is, and shall al­ways be Howard Uni­versity. I have tried to ex­plain this to you many times. You say you hear me, that you un­der­stand, but I am not sure that the force of my Mecca—The Mecca—can be trans­lated in­to your new ec­lect­ic tongue. I am not even sure that it should be… And still, I main­tain that even for a cos­mo­pol­it­an boy like you, there is something to be found there — a base, even in these mod­ern times, a port in the Amer­ic­an storm.”

HB­CUs, with about an eighth of the av­er­age en­dow­ment of oth­er in­sti­tu­tions and half re­ceiv­ing no fed­er­al fund­ing, op­er­ate primar­ily on rev­en­ue from tu­ition. Those stu­dents, however, rely heav­ily on fed­er­al loan and grant pro­grams to af­ford col­lege, with more than sev­en out of every 10 HB­CU stu­dents re­ceiv­ing Pell grants. An equal share takes out fed­er­al loans—about 20 per­cent high­er than the na­tion­al av­er­age. This means that HB­CUs are deeply im­pacted by changes in fed­er­al fin­an­cial aid policy.

In 2011, the De­part­ment of Edu­ca­tion re­duced the total num­ber of semesters for which stu­dents could re­ceive Pell grants from 18 to 12 semesters. The cut was felt deeply at HB­CUs where stu­dents, on av­er­age, take longer to gradu­ate. The same year, the DoE also tightened eli­gib­il­ity for Par­ent PLUS loans, a form of aid used in great num­ber by HB­CU stu­dents and fam­il­ies to fin­ance their edu­ca­tion. These sud­den, sim­ul­tan­eous changes cre­ated a crisis on HB­CU cam­puses around the coun­try. Ac­cord­ing to ana­lys­is by the United Negro Col­lege Fund, an es­tim­ated 28,000 HB­CU stu­dents were denied loans in 2012, res­ult­ing in a col­lect­ive loss of about $155 mil­lion in tu­ition rev­en­ue—re­du­cing in­sti­tu­tion­al budgets by 35 per­cent.

In 2010, the year be­fore the cuts, HB­CUs ex­per­i­enced their highest levels of en­roll­ment in the nearly 40 years the De­part­ment of Edu­ca­tion has been keep­ing track. In 2010, 265,908 stu­dents were en­rolled at HB­CUs across the coun­try. That num­ber has de­clined stead­ily every school year since.

Last month, pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Hil­lary Clin­ton an­nounced a pro­pos­al to per­haps undo some of that dam­age by cre­at­ing a ded­ic­ated $25 bil­lion fund to sup­port to private non­profit schools that serve low-in­come stu­dents, of which private HB­CUs are an ex­ample.

To be sure, HB­CUs are not per­fect in­sti­tu­tions and cer­tainly are not sac­rosanct be­cause they serve a be­lea­guered pop­u­la­tion.

They’re worth pro­tect­ing and sup­port­ing, however, be­cause they punch above their weight when it comes to gradu­at­ing low-in­come stu­dents and stu­dents of col­or. The more than 100 HB­CUs around the coun­try en­roll nearly 10 per­cent of of black un­der­gradu­ates but award 16 per­cent of the bach­el­or’s de­grees earned by black Amer­ic­ans, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Stat­ist­ics. In ad­di­tion, HB­CUs pro­duce 70 per­cent of all black dent­ists and doc­tors, 50 per­cent of black en­gin­eers and pub­lic school teach­ers, and 35 per­cent of black law­yers, ac­cord­ing to stats from the UN­CF.

Mar­cel­lis Wil­burn, 18, says he chose Howard be­cause he wanted to pur­sue a ca­reer in crim­in­al justice. Thur­good Mar­shall’s alma ma­ter, he thought, would be a smart place to be­gin the road to be­com­ing a pro­sec­utor then judge.

“I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in go­ing to Howard be­cause of its law school,” says Wil­burn.

He says that mon­it­or­ing high-pro­file in­cid­ents of po­lice bru­tal­ity over the past year in­formed his view of the crim­in­al justice sys­tem and made him worry more about his safety in in­ter­act­ing with po­lice of­ficers.

“A typ­ic­al traffic stop could be a life or death situ­ation, be­cause po­lice are get­ting out of hand with Afric­an-Amer­ic­an men and wo­men,” says Wil­burn. “I feel safer on Howard’s cam­pus than I prob­ably would on an­oth­er cam­pus be­cause, here at Howard, our po­lice of­ficers and most of the of­ficer who at­tend to cer­tain situ­ations are Afric­an Amer­ic­an. I feel more com­fort­able.”

In a mo­ment when the na­tion is fi­nally fo­cus­ing at­ten­tion to the is­sue of po­lice vi­ol­ence against black Amer­ic­ans, black col­leges are be­ing re­cog­nized for the re­l­at­ive safety they af­ford their stu­dents, en­sur­ing that HB­CUs will re­main rel­ev­ant as unique spaces for in­tel­lec­tu­al, psy­cho­lo­gic­al and phys­ic­al free­dom.

Donovan X. Ramsey