The History Channel recently aired the remake of the 1977 epic classic, Roots, a series documenting the resilient story of Kunta Kinte and his family from slavery to freedom. The irony in Roots is the continuous “uprooting” of the family experiences; this, too, has semblance to the challenges HBCUs encounter.
Roots is symbolic narrative in its reverence, depicting a family attempting to hold on to its “roots,” to its cultural connections and survival in the midst of one of the most violent periods for African-Americans in the United States. Slavery transformed into peonage and provided free labor to White elites with Black dispensable bodies building and laboring in institutions such as Duke University, Georgetown University and others.
The sons and daughters of former slaves entered the back door while the sons of plantation owners and the elite walked through the front door. Slavery ended in 1865 but numerous families and institutions continued to reap benefits from its profits.
The narrative of historically Black colleges and universities has roots in a history of social and racial injustice in the United States.
Designed to educate freed slaves, training focused on industrial and agriculture trades. Religious groups, White philanthropists, and, at a smaller level, business owners (e.g., Mary McLeod Bethune) funded HBCUs. HBCUs saturated Southern states, offering social mobility for African-Americans — unable to integrate Southern elite universities until the 1950s.
To date, North Carolina has the second-largest number of HBCUs and it is here SB 873 gained momentum and debate. Controversy ensued against a proposed tuition decrease and cap and name change across five universities; three were HBCUs (Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University and Winston-Salem State University). The momentum died down a bit and the three HBCUs removed from the bill; however, the debate continues.
HBCUs confront a narrative that questions whether public dollars should continue to support them. I am sure we will see similar legislation in the future; we exist in a “postracial” society where too many liberals and conservatives question the relevance of HBCUs let alone advocate for their funding.
The bill’s language attempted to “uproot” HBCUs and, subversively, remove a piece of their identity and increase the stress on already stressed institutions. SB 873 proposed to reduce tuition, and, although this is highly beneficial for students who attend HBCUs, lowering cost may diminish the quality of education and, eventually, lead to increased financial stress for the university.
The language does not provide any analysis into how reducing tuition supports continued maintenance of these institutions.
This is problematic in a state that has seen a dramatic decrease in higher education funding and a country where federal foundations, overwhelmingly, grant funding to historically White universities.
HBCUs in North Carolina have historically educated those who fall within the lower socioeconomic domain. The lack of generational wealth translates into generational debt, less assets and expendable income for graduating students.
With alumni still trying to break the cycles of poverty and debt, the endowment of HBCUs will have to rely on the same spirit that led religious groups, philanthropists and business owners that founded them to continue to fund them. But this future is abysmal and, let us be honest with ourselves, we are governed by different economic and political times.
SB 873 proposed to change the name of the sponsored institutions. There is a scene in Roots where Kunta Kinte remains tied to a tree, whipped repeatedly, while the overseer violently demands he accept the name Toby. Kinte eventually succumbs to the beating and accepts Toby in order to survive, but a piece of his spirit died. When the General Administration in North Carolina changes the name of these institutions, it will silence backstories and kill some of their spirit.
The spirit of many HBCUs is broken — some could not survive (e.g., Saint Paul’s College), others are still trying to hold on, and a few, largely due to increased admissions standards (still marginalizing low socioeconomic and educationally disenfranchised students), a stronger history of educating middle- and higher-income students, and larger endowments, will survive.
Surviving is not thriving; removing opportunities for students who do not have a high GPA, graduate with perfect SAT scores, and whose parents have accumulated wealth will eventually uproot many HBCUs.
I attended a statewide faculty meeting in North Carolina with a group of diverse individuals discussing SB 873. One of the questions the facilitator posed to the group, “Why does this matter?”
HBCUs matter to the students they serve and surrounding communities. They provide stories of resistance; they produced civil rights activists who challenged this country to hold true to the ideals of “liberty and justice for all.” They nurture “mattering” to many young people, building education pipelines and social mobility for disenfranchised students from remote locations such as Ahoskie, North Carolina, to urban meccas like the Bronx, New York.
HBCUs are in a fight: a fight for funding, transformative and competent leaders, and a fight against a repressive and deficit narrative. In the end, however, they just might lose, will be sold off to the lowest bidder and given a new name. Do we watch silently as they are dragged off, chained and never to return?
Dr. Dawn X. Henderson is a community psychologist and former faculty member at Winston-Salem State University.