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Little-known, little-recognized: historically black community colleges defy categorization, get job done

Providing a variety of college experiences and job training to thousands of Black, Hispanic and other students is a task honed to perfection by a handful of little-known and little-recognized historically Black community colleges.

Like their four-year cousins, many of the historically Black community colleges have religious origins and were begun in the South during and after the time of slavery.

And like the four-year historically Black colleges and universities, many of the two-year institutions take pride in providing a nurturing environment for students who may need a little extra. “We have a rich culture and we overemphasize providing services to the under prepared and under represented. We take pride in individual attention to students,” says Dr. Charles A. Taylor, president of St. Phillips Community College.

But there the easy comparisons end. The historically Black community colleges are as varied as the four-year institutions and defy categorizing, ranging from a small liberal arts college in Arkansas to a technical college in Louisiana.

Shorter, a privately supported two-year college with 300 students, sits in the heart of the Black community in Little Rock, AR. Founded by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in 1886, it was first a high school that later expanded to a four-year college until, in 1955, it became a two-year college.

Many of its programs, such as the early childhood development center, serve community needs, making it in some ways a fairly typical community college. The center offers students studying childhood development an opportunity for practical experience and offers quality day care for the community, says its president, Dr. Katherine Mitchell.

But Shorter has on-campus dormitories housing about one-third of its students, making it atypical for community colleges. And its emphasis is on teaching the liberal arts rather than the more traditional technical programs.

“We look for a special sense of commitment in our teachers, who are carefully selected,” said Mitchell. And we stress to them that we are here to serve the needs of our students. We know that is why we exist.”

Concordia College in Selma, AL, emphasizes church work in accordance with its origins. Founded as a high school by the Lutheran Church, it later became a junior college with an emphasis on training church workers. Phyllis Richardson, dean of academic affairs of Concordia, said that church training remains its primary mission for its 475, mostly African-American, students. But it also offers a liberal arts transfer program and one four-year program in teacher education.

Southern University at Shreveport-Bossier City, LA, began as a land-grant institution, the junior college division of the Southern University system.

In 1977, says Jerome Greene Jr., chancellor at Southern Shreveport-Bossier City, the state of Louisiana asked that Southern Shreveport become a comprehensive community college. As a result the college now offers allied health, aerospace, avionics, and hazardous waste handling, all part of the state’s effort to bring in more industry.

Seventy percent of the college’s 1400 students are African American, 30 percent white and foreign nationals.

“We take students from where they are to where they need to be,” says Greene. “The way we look at it, developmental education is not only for the student who comes in lacking. It is also for the C student who wants to be a B student and for the B student who wants to be an A student.”

One of the larger of the historically Black community colleges is St. Phillips Community College in San Antonio, TX, which has the unusual designation of being both an HBCC (historically Black community college) and a Hispanic-serving Institution (HSI). Founded in 1898 by an Episcopalian Bishop as an industrial school for African-American girls, it became a junior college in 1902. It remained a private institution until 1942, when it came under San Antonio College and the San Antonio Independent School District.

Today, St. Phillips is a commuter school with an enrollment of 7,300 students, of which 44 percent are Hispanic. The changing demographics of southern Texas caused the change, says president Taylor. But, he says, “There is no conflict in wearing the two hats because the missions blend exceptionally well.”

“Our mission is the same as any community college in that we respond to business and industry and have an open door policy,” Taylor said.

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