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The demise of HBCUs

Apathy, not bulldozers, will destroy them



I jokingly tell people that I attended more than six undergraduate institutions, some I left, and some I was asked to leave. Intellect — or a lack thereof — had nothing to do with my nomadic experience. In my day, many institutions had trouble retaining and graduating a diverse student population. Many still do. As a result, the student was blamed. It was their fault that they could not successfully negotiate the institution. It was not until I attended Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, a small HBCU (historically black college and university), that I found folks like me in the administration, staff and faculty. I was affirmed.

We now understand how affirming it is for a student to see an instructional leader who looks like them, speaks with a similar voice and approaches content from a familiar cultural perspective. That is what I found at an HBCU as a student, and that is what I provided later as an educator even at mainstream institutions.

I had never heard of Barber-Scotia, an HBCU in Concord, until I moved to the Carolinas and worked as an assistant professor of mass communication for about three years. When news broke last year that some of its old dorms were being demolished, I paid attention.

Barber-Scotia College has been in financial trouble for quite some time. In 2004, the school lost its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. A loss of accreditation meant students lost access to federal loans and other financial aid. The dorms hadn't been used since and were plagued by asbestos. Last year, according to the Independent Tribune, the Concord City Council unanimously approved the demolition of the Barber-Scotia dorms at 180 and 188 Corban Avenue because of "code enforcement and safety violations."

Barber-Scotia is part of a growing number of HBCUs that have fallen on hard times in recent years, some even closing their doors permanently.

Quaker philanthropist Richard Humphreys created the first HBCU, the Institute for Colored Youth, in 1837 to train free blacks. By 1902, more than 85 schools were established by philanthropists, free blacks, states and churches. HBCUs were the primary option for blacks interested in college until 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education ended "separate but equal" school systems. About 105 exist in the U.S., according to The National Center for Public Policy Research. In the past four decades, 12 have closed, primarily because of "money problems resulting from declining enrollment and endowments."

David Olah is the current president of Barber-Scotia College. He expressed his concerns about the financial toll the demolition could have on the institution — if the buildings were torn down, how would the college reimburse the city for the cost of demolition. "I'm concerned if you tear it down, you will put pressure on us to pay very soon," Olah said. "And if we can't pay, you will foreclose on our property."

When Mable Parker McLean, former president emerita of Barber-Scotia College, died Jan. 27, 2012, I attended her memorial service on campus to pay my respects to an incredible leader and educator. I had not visited the campus in almost a decade. The school now, according to Olah, only has about 50 students during the year. As I roamed the building that housed what used to be the classroom and studio for my communication students, I was haunted by spectral memories of a once-thriving campus that had lost much of its historical luster.

It is ironic that we will read with voyeuristic glee about the latest outfit worn by a Kardashian but the demolition of part of a 145-year-old institution barely makes a blip in the media.

Indeed, the demolition would have gone undocumented had it not been for pictures shared by concerned alumni on Facebook. They also shared their reactions o the news. Many were speechless, moved to tears and hurt. But what felt like a bad dream also conjured wonderful memories that were shared and celebrated. One comment, from alumni Daniel Dickey, was particularly profound. Dickey shared, "This is an unfortunate end to a very memorable place and time in our lives. Would be great if these words transferred into action ..."

The sad truth is that if folks don't do a better job of supporting HBCUs like Barber-Scotia, it won't be financial challenges, relevance in a desegregated society or even the bulldozers that threaten HBCUs. It will be simple apathy.

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