The greatest thing about HBCUs are the toiling students fighting for justice on these campuses. Not the college presidents, boards of trustees, the administrators, teachers, or coaches. It is the students who, under adversity of both institutional racism and the duplicity of some who minister to them, claiming to be role models, perennially rise above nonsense and develop a historical awareness of the dynamics of empowerment and self-reliance.
HBCUs like to market themselves as having produced the student activists that formed the modern Black freedom movement. This is a patriotic and conservative discourse in post-civil rights America. This obscures how historically HBCUs have repressed students and calls for democratic accountability on their own campuses. Students have grown to understand, in their historical rebellions against Black college presidents and administrators, that as a social class, these are not role models or heroic people. Instead they are agents of subordination and degradation. HBCUs often reproduce elites to collaborate with institutional racism and keep everyday Blacks down and disoriented.
One elder chair of a Black Studies department once told me, “there are many things you can do in terms of political education and organizing at a historically Black college. The one thing you will not be permitted to do is oppose the Black college president.” And yet, any struggle for democracy (majority rule) must strive to take away power from the minority who rules above institutions and society, or such organizing is merely a cultural decoration that makes those who rule yawn and maintain the disposition of mild amusement.
At their origin, HBCUs were created with two contradictory purposes. After Reconstruction (1865-1877) HBCUs produced a Black political class to contain the grassroots and popular mobilization of Black sharecroppers and domestic servants that continue to disorient Black toilers. HBCUs also were created by sincere Black church-folk with a faith-based mission genuinely concerned with self-reliance.
Let us examine concisely this history of repression and resistance at HBCUs from the 1880s to the early 1970s.
In the late 1880s, Ida B Wells, the famous anti-lynching campaigner, was suspended after doing well her first year at Rust College, an HBCU in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She was rebellious and was in a confrontation with the college president, W.W. Hooper, who expelled her. Wells questioned the college president’s authority. While Hooper was a white college president of an HBCU, no Black college administrator or teachers backed her at the risk of losing their own coveted positions.
William Pickens who taught at Talladega College, an HBCU in Mississippi, was fired from the faculty in 1913 for organizing the first NAACP chapter in the South. The reason: insubordination and encouraging students in some way to rebel against the college administration. The NAACP back then, to the extent it wished to expose lynching, was a threat to the white racial state and those Blacks who collaborated with it. Pickens was said to teach in a way that made white authorities uncomfortable, so the Black administrators repressed him.
Joseph A. Booker, the founding president of Arkansas Baptist College, an HBCU in Little Rock, succumbed to debasement when the Elaine Massacre (the Arkansas Race Riot) occurred in 1919, a military and police attack on the Progressive Farmers and Household Workers Union meeting. Instead of speaking out against it, he said “I have always felt the negro was greatly in debt to the Southern white people for what he is and what his children may yet be.”
Some recall W.E.B. Du Bois rebuking the administration of Fisk University, the HBCU he attended in Tennessee, in commencement addresses in both 1908 and 1924. When we look at the selected correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois, it is clear that in the 1920s he inspired student strikes. DuBois exposed the poor education of students at Fisk. Black college leaders wished to train subordinate and cheap toilers for their white benefactors. Du Bois said, of all the essentials a university needs, money is the least. It needs teachers who will teach truth regardless of their personal fortune and learn from the students’ environment. But students had to want to learn and put quality time on task. Instead Fisk was “choking freedom” by embracing anti-black propaganda that many had been working hard for years to discredit.
In the 1920s, Ella Baker, as recorded by Barbara Ransby’s and J. Todd Moye’s studies of her life, challenged the rules at Shaw University, an HBCU in North Carolina, at least three times. She petitioned the dean of the college to relax the patriarchal dress code for female students. The dean responded by making it mandatory that the young women go to chapel every night as punishment. The dean called Baker into her office to pray with her, hoping she would see the error of her ways, and threatened her with expulsion. Baker recalled that the dean fainted to the floor when she did not appear sufficiently apologetic. Later Baker protested the fashion of inviting Northern whites to visit campus to hear Black students sing Negro spirituals. Baker refused to participate in a ritual that she believed was demeaning: not Blacks singing, but Blacks representing themselves as “soulful” for white patronage. Finally, Baker protested the terms of the mandatory Bible examination at Shaw. Baker may have had conflicts with certain instructors but she also was beginning to ask questions about religion that were discouraged. Subsequently, Baker explained it should be obvious why she didn’t go to church.
Also in the 1920s, student strikes also took place at Hampton in Virginia and Howard in Washington, D.C. The general pattern was Black students protested white controlled Black college education, the deplorable conditions of the campuses, and their confining moral codes.
Langston Hughes attended Lincoln University in the 20s, an HBCU in Pennsylvania. He completed a campus sociology project that found more than half the Black students preferred an all-white faculty. Hughes shared his findings with a prominent Black alumnus they were taught to admire. The alumnus told him: “where would I be if I told the truth to white folks?” Hughes concluded that the historical disposition embodied in Harriet Tubman and John Brown was not aligned with that alumnus. According to Arnold Rampersad, Hughes found an obvious incompetency among many of his instructors at Lincoln.
Bayard Rustin went on scholarship to Wilberforce University, an HBCU in Ohio, in 1932. He lasted a little over a year. While college authorities reported Rustin didn’t attend class regularly and dropped out, he later recalled his alienation because the education there was not intellectually challenging. Scholars are unclear if this is the reason he left, or if it was the repression he faced as a Black gay man, a student strike he was part of against bad campus food, or refusal to take the ROTC course conditioning Blacks to support the military. He moved on to another HBCU, Cheyney State in Pennsylvania. Rustin recalled the coursework was not much better there. But somehow, he found his calling as a classically trained singer before becoming a civil rights and labor organizer.
In 1935 there was a national student strike against war and fascism by over a half million students. Thousands of Black students at HBCUs including Howard, Hampton, Morgan State, Virginia Union, Virginia State, and Morehouse participated. Most Black students supported World War II subsequently. But returning Black war veterans supported anti-racist and democratic struggles with protests at Lincoln University, an HBCU in Pennsylvania, being exemplary.
Dr. Martin Luther King, when a student at Morehouse College from 1944-1948, led a protest against the poor quality of the campus food. King and the protesters are not recalled as pointing out who had the contract to provide this food or who made this business decision. College President Benjamin Mays returned from a NYC fundraising trip to disorient student protesters, telling them about the importance of protesting international issues. Mays, never a radical internationalist, was diverting Black students from seeing clearly his own complicity, duplicity, and power over their lives.
E. Franklin Frazier wrote the classic The Black Bourgeoisie. His experience teaching at Tuskegee, the HBCU in Alabama, was clearly an inspiration toward this scathing critique. The Black college president, R.R. Moten, told him not to be seen walking around with philosophy books on campus, for when the white college trustees came around, they might get the wrong idea about what was taught there. Tuskegee, always having some decent science and vocational programs, was known for “making bricks without straw” as part of a tale of self-help and racial uplift. Anthony M. Platt tells us Frazier, angry, came to class one day and slammed a brick down on the desk and asked is this what a college education was all about? Frazier was not against Black toilers but wished to develop their Black radical thought. Frazier also refused to pay the Alabama state poll tax from his salary because under Jim Crow segregation Blacks weren’t permitted to vote. The college administration paid the tax in Frazier’s name to the white authorities.
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), depicts “the founder” of Tuskegee University who everyone knows to be Booker T. Washington but who can also be a metaphor for the prototypical Black college president. Ellison depicted the statue of the founder that appears to be removing a veil from a kneeling slave. But the author remarked he was not sure if the veil was being lowered more firmly into place and that this perhaps embodied the true mission of the college. The narrator of Invisible Man appears to delight in watching birds splatter the statue of a man who is supposed to represent cleanliness with poop. Another storyline showed the college president warning Black student tour guides not to take the visiting white college trustees around the sharecropping communities near the campus, for they were said to be embarrassing. It is true that Ellison did find his education at Tuskegee in literature and music of merit, but politically it was an authoritarian environment. Confidential references given to the “invisible man” by “the founder,” that were supposed to vouch for his character, were part of a conspiracy to make sure he would never be employed.
In an older but valuable study of Amiri Baraka’s ideas, Wernor Sollers notes that Baraka despised Howard University, which he attended in the early 1950s, and considered it a “sick” institution which “makes most Negroes who go there turn out bourgeois conservatives.” Baraka did benefit from learning from Sterling Brown, whose Black Nationalist literary values stood out in an otherwise assimilationist environment.
Fisk University, led by the Black college president Charles S. Johnson in the 1950s, in response to the national crisis of McCarthyism, repressed an outspoken white faculty member, Lee Lorch, a friend of W.E.B. Du Bois. Lorch was ultimately brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) – the same Congressional grouping Paul Robeson denounced as racist and fascist.
Claudette Colvin was a Black teenager who really was the first not to give up her seat on the segregated bus (not Rosa Parks) that ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956. But elites around Alabama State University, a Montgomery, Alabama HBCU and Dr. King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church would not rally around Colvin. She didn’t keep her hair straight, her parents were not seen as respectable, she had a teenage pregnancy, and a conviction for assaulting a police officer. The racial uplift crowd wouldn’t acknowledge her leadership.
The women of Bennett College, an HBCU in North Carolina, played an under-recorded role in the Greensboro lunch counter-sit ins and disobedience campaigns of 1959-1960. The first Black president of Bennett, Dr. Wila Player, affirmed student activism, manipulated it, and discouraged it all at the same time. Player told students not to do sit-ins at certain times to avoid causing a crisis on campus at the end of the semester, when tests are being taken, and students are preparing to leave for holiday break. Are not acts of disobedience supposed to disrupt business as usual and cause inconvenience? Did Dr. Player “play” the students?
Ready for Revolution, the autobiography of Stokley Carmichael/Kwame Ture, has stated that Howard University in the early 1960s, embodied the very best and the absolute worst values of the African American community. At its worst, it was an elitist enclave, and a gathering of Blacks with class snobbery and color complexes, who formed fraternities and sororities that stood for personal advancement and no genuine struggle. Students, for the most part, were trying to “get over” academically. However, he states there were also many genuine and well-meaning children of southern Black toilers present who aspired to the same “bougie” ideals but never could quite get there.
Modibo Kadalie attended Morehouse College in the early 1960s. He has explained, in an oral history with this author, that the idea that the college president Benjamin Mays was “born to rebel” was a joke. Mays was always collaborating with the police to undermine and contain students who participated in demonstrations. Like Dr. King’s family, he was among Black bourgeois who hobnobbed with the Atlanta white elite that maintained segregation. Mays spoke of the success stories among the Black professional and business classes associated with the Sweet Auburn district in Atlanta. Imagine what “success” means in a city governed by a white supremacist regime?
Kadalie later taught at Langston University, an HBCU in Oklahoma, between 1965-1967 before becoming a member of the Detroit based League of Revolutionary Black Workers and a critic of the search for a Black vanguard party. Kadalie, an instructor at Langston, was asked by the Black college president to reveal the authors of the student protest newsletter Grapevine that made fun of the administration’s authority. He was offered a bribe, a scholarship to do his doctorate if he snitched. Kadalie flipped the college president’s desk in his lap and stormed out of the office and left that campus.
Max Stanford (Muhammad Ahmed) and Wanda Marshall of Revolutionary Action Movement first became active with a student group of the early 1960s called Challenge at Central State, an HBCU in Wilberforce, Ohio. They became more conscious and radical as a result of a year of conflicts with the college administrators regarding students’ rights.
The early 1960s student activism of Alice Walker at Spelman College is well known, though it was discouraged and repressed. Despite having the support of professors like Howard Zinn, author of People’s History of the United States who was also ousted, she transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Walker found Spelman too puritanical and patriarchal. She is the author of The Color Purple, among many other publications.
H. Rap Brown (Imam Jamil-Al Amin), in his memoir Die Nigger Die, pointed out that the college president of Southern University, an HBCU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had obnoxious respectability politics that chided Black students about how to dress. The young men were strongly encouraged to present themselves in jackets and ties; the young women were to appear in dresses of proper length. But when white students visited the college, or white board of trustees’ members visited the college, they were not compelled to maintain this dress code. Brown was disgusted with the double standard: the then college president seemed to revel in maintaining a personal autocracy over people of color while deferring and kow-towing to white elites. Brown was very conscious that HBCU campuses generally were maintained by the Black bourgeoisie who were afraid of ordinary Blacks, often living across a railroad track from campus. Students were taught to have contempt for Black toilers.
From 1962-1965 numerous sources show the expulsion and firing of Black students and Black faculty at many HBCUs for supporting civil rights disobedience. These repressive campuses included Alabama State, Southern (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), Florida A&M, Albany State in Georgia, and Arkansas AM&N. Alabama State apologized this year for expelling nine students for sit-ins that integrated lunch counters in the basement of a state court house 58 years ago. How many other HBCUs have lied about their pride in the tradition of activism on their campuses?
What happened at Arkansas AM&N (now University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) is instructive of this trend. The conflicts with the Black college president, Lawrence A Davis, Sr, was instrumental in the experiences of Arkansas SNCC, as it grew beyond its roots at Philander Smith College, an HBCU in Little Rock. Davis was initially seen as a “progressive,” having invited Dr. King to speak on campus to much controversy with white authorities. But Davis had conflicting tendencies within himself like many Black college presidents. Davis could help Black students but wish for deference to his authority, and the hierarchy beyond the campus. Davis criticized student sit-ins, suspended and expelled student activists. Many have asked why Davis repressed Black students also fighting for his civil rights? But Davis clearly was part of the professional classes in the Jim Crow South who already knew empowerment. His power was predicated on containing democratic revolt within his community, the requirement of Black leadership approved by white official society.
In 1966, at Alcorn A & M in Mississippi, the highway patrol used tear gas and clubs to prevent a student protest against the president of the college.
At Texas Southern, an HBCU in Houston, a student rebellion occurred against the death of an eleven year old who died in an unsafe landfill in 1967. Many of these dumps were placed in Black communities and this protest was the first in the country to highlight environmental racism. Police falsely assumed students were in the forefront of this community protest and blockaded and occupied their campus. Students shot at the police from their dormitory. Police exchanged gunfire with the students. The Mayor enlisted appropriate Black leaders to bewilder the Black student protesters. When this didn’t work, the police occupied the dorm and brought trumped up charges against five students for killing a police officer. These charges were dismissed in 1970.
In late 1967, the Black administrations of Grambling University in Louisiana and Lane College of Tennessee called the police on campuses to quell Black student protest.
Tuskegee students locked the Board of Trustees in their meeting room demanding campus wide reform in April 1968.
Alcorn A&M College students were dismissed for distributing pamphlets for the Charles Evers’s campaign also in 1968. The college president said the students were dismissed for cursing him. State troopers were called to campus, and fired tear gas to quell protests. Sniper fire was heard and an academic building was heavily damaged.
In 1969 there was a student rebellion at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Led by the New Orleans based Malcolm Suber, the later famous actor Samuel L. Jackson, and a junior professor at the time, Gerald McWhorter (Abdul Alkalimat), they showed how they felt about the college president and Board of Trustees by chaining the doors to their meeting room, detained them and insisted their demands were met. One of the Board of Trustees members was “Daddy King,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s father, who held the student activists in contempt. And they didn’t care for him either.
Howard University had major protests on their campus supported by students from American University and George Washington University in March of 1969. There was an attempt for students to have greater participation in the academic curriculum and student discipline. Over 1000 students occupied the administrative building and the administrators of the college fled. There was a call for the resignation of the entire university administration, reinstatement of expelled student protesters and the faculty who supported them. The student protesters were extremely self-reliant organizing food provisions and a sanitary system.
In April of that same year students at Virginia Union occupied all four buildings on campus. They had a list of 52 grievances.
In May of 1969 Black students at North Carolina A & T, an HBCU in Greensboro, led by Nelson Johnson’s Student Organization for Black Unity (SOBU) rallied to support Black high school protest at nearby Dudley High School. Gunfire was exchanged by student protesters, police and the National Guard. One student bystander, Willie Grimes, was killed. The uprising spread to the A&T campus and a generalized revolt came out of this in Greensboro.
In May of 1969, 200 students at Cheney State, an HBCU in Pennsylvania locked themselves in the campus administrative building in protest. Their grievances included the poor quality of the teaching staff and insufficient financial resources of the college. Troopers were sent in to repress the students.
400 students occupied the administrative building of Delaware State, an HBCU, also in May 1969. They were protesting the disciplining of a student who interrupted the speech of the state governor a few days before. The college administration called 50 National Guard Troops to expel them.
In 1970 tiny Vorhees College, an HBCU in Denmark, South Carolina was militarily occupied. Students were dispersed by the National Guard following the Orangeburg Massacre where South Carolina State students in 1969 were active, repressed, and SNCC’s Cleveland Sellers was brutalized. Four Black faculty were fired for supporting the freedom struggle and students rebelled to restore their positions while calling for the firing of one white paternalistic faculty member. As fate would have it, in the new millennium Sellers would become president of Vorhees.
At Jackson State University, an HBCU in Mississippi, police fired on a group of students killing two and wounding twelve others also in 1970. It was a result of increased friction over harassment of students and local youth by law enforcement. Often forgotten, because it came ten days after the Kent State massacre in Ohio, this final confrontation emerged because the campus was located at a road that divided segregated areas where black and white youth often fought. A rumor was spread that Black leader Charles Evers, Medgar Evers’ brother, was killed. Students threw rocks and bricks at the police. Many recollect that despite the confused circumstances of the rebellion, the independent action of Black students, not encouraged by Black administrators, showed resolve.
From 1970-1972 Southern University in Baton Rouge was the site of constant campus speak outs and rebellions. Most importantly, the Black students linked up with the Black longshoremen protesting and disrupting the shipment of chrome to white supremacist occupied Zimbabwe. They understood the importance of struggle at the point of economic and social reproduction, in this case, the global waterways of the Mississippi Delta. This was to disrupt white corporate elites and Black aspirers who refused to question the empire of capital and who were complicit in keeping Africans at home and abroad down. Student protesters at Southern also disrupted campus bringing attention to their negligence in maintaining the psychology department.
A sustained month-long boycott at Southern led to state police occupying the campus and killing students. A few dozen were injured by tear gas and gunfire. Six students were charged with interfering with the “education process.” More accurately, Black students’ self-organization independent of the premises of a Black college have always been in the forefront of real education.
It takes a lot of planning and strategizing, sacrifice, discipline and hard work to plant the seeds for radical internationalism and independent action among students and an identification with Black toilers instead of Black bourgeois aspirations. Even at high tides of resistance, it took many sparks to start the fire and fan the flame.
It is true that many former Black student protesters, now elderly, return to their alma maters at homecomings, speak at graduation, and are given lifetime achievement awards sometimes for ambiguous contributions. Most former student activists do not become Black college presidents or administrators, but the marketing departments and offices of institutional advancement like to show that HBCU graduates (or those who attended there) have a social justice legacy.
Presently, “social justice” is corporate language that is used as a way to contain Black protesters, It actually means charity, not disobedience, and renews racial uplift elitism.
Rarely are HBCU students encouraged to protest today. When they do, they are blamed for the mismanagement and crisis of the colleges. Few rebellions against the police, war and empire are unfolding. Sometimes protest emerges against patriarchy and repression of LGBTQ students. But most students want recognition by the administration not an overturning of it.
Students have an interest in defending the financial aid packages promised them in pursuit of survival. But they don’t question, for the most part, the normative role of schooling in maintaining economic hierarchies. Most are not questioning authority; they, too, want a piece of the action in their future.
Still, if Black students continue mobilizing against HBCU presidents and Boards of Trustees, documenting and popularizing their complicity with white corporate elites, and government, for their own profit and advancement, the conflicting tendencies within the community become clear.
The virtues of attending an all-Black institution may be that students get nurturing and leadership opportunities they might otherwise not at a predominantly white college. Still, some of the brightest Black students ever to emerge from HBCUs, really major pillars of Black history and culture, have concluded they have been betrayed. Perhaps some of their education was meritous but the campus culture and authorities, most concluded, were overwhelmingly substandard, hostile, and encouraged a climate of degeneracy.
Pursuing Black autonomy can expose that some Black’s social capital, in the name of racial uplift, is the miseducation and servility of other Blacks. As Zora Neale Hurston, the novelist who wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, and who attended the high school at Morgan State, an HBCU in Baltimore, and Howard briefly before attending Columbia University, once said: “all my skin folk ain’t my kinfolk” and “every tub must sit on its own bottom.”
What experience of an all-Black college has produced historically among the most brilliant Black minds that have democratized world civilization (but peculiarly not HBCU campuses) is radical awareness that Black power means little if it doesn’t mean power to the common people even where Blacks have already ascended to coveted positions above society. It is a beautiful thing when some students at HBCUs begin to figure this out through their reading, writing, by instinct and experience, and independent mobilizations for justice on their campuses. Part of a historical development that is ever unfolding, HBCU students have tremendous power and nobody dares to tell them.
Matthew Quest is a scholar of the legacies of C.L.R. James. See his essay on James and the history of the Haitian Revolution in The Black Jacobins Reader.