Integration Cases Raise Doubts about Future of Black Colleges

April 25, 1993|By THOMAS W. WALDRON

State Sen. Clarence W. Blount lived through Jim Crow, attended segregated schools, and graduated from Morgan State College.

Now, at the age of 71, the Baltimore Democrat has come to a conclusion. "It appears to me that this whole push for integration was wrong."

This weary assessment from one of the state's leading black elected officials comes after taking part in 40 years of attempted integration.

The U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that separate-but-equal schools were unconstitutional caused drastic upheaval in the black community. Some black schools closed, costing black principals and administrators their prominent positions. For the most part, it was all in vain: Public schools across the country are almost as segregated as they ever were.

Now, Mr. Blount and other black leaders worry about a replay. The Supreme Court last year ruled, 8 to 1, that Mississippi's higher education system is still too segregated, decades after James Meredith walked with armed escorts into Old Miss.

Everyone calls it a landmark ruling, although no one is quite sure what changes the murky decision will bring to higher education.

It's clear, though, that once again, the court has chalked out a course that theoretically leads to more integration, this time in higher education.

Few blacks or whites consider segregation a desirable goal. But ending it in the nation's colleges will present states with some troubling dilemmas.

In 17 Southern states that had segregated public college systems -- including Maryland -- one obvious way to achieve that integration is to close down the historically black public colleges. Another is to merge schools in a way which causes the black campuses to lose their identity.

In Mississippi, the state responded to the Supreme Court decision by proposing to merge several black and white colleges. Louisiana is considering merging all public colleges into a single system, which blacks say would hurt their institutions.

Maryland's higher education system is somewhat less segregated than Mississippi's or Louisiana's. But, it's not inconceivable that somebody -- federal civil rights authorities, for example -- might push for more integration here, too.

That could well mean trouble for the state's four historically black colleges.

Why not, for example, close down Morgan State and send its thousands of black students to Towson State, the University of Maryland Baltimore County or UM-College Park? On the Eastern Shore, why not merge mostly black UM-Eastern Shore into predominantly white Salisbury State University?

State Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who is, like Mr. Blount, an influential black voice in Annapolis, points to what is happening down South and wonders why predominantly black public colleges have to suffer in the name of integration.

Why not, he suggests for the sake of argument, stop construction of the new business school building being erected on Mount Royal Avenue for the University of Baltimore? Why not put that money into improving Morgan's business school? The improved facilities would attract both blacks and whites, he suggests.

Don't bet on any of it happening. Most of Maryland's higher education policy makers seem content to sit back and see if any lawsuits emerge before making any tough decisions about integration.

*

All of this comes at a time when historically black colleges are generally thriving. Black students are flooding into these schools and some states are pouring money into their long-neglected black campuses. With their enrollments climbing, historically black campuses now educate roughly one-fourth of black undergraduates nationally.

It's not hard to understand why. The news brings a relentless flow of racially tinged problems on predominantly white campuses:

* At Rider College, in Lawrenceville, N.J., a white fraternity held a "Dress Like a Nigger Night," during which members wore stereotypically black clothing to clean the fraternity house.

* At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the most prestigious public schools in the nation, black students protested for a year over what they say is a hostile campus climate. The administration eventually agreed to build a black student center.

* At the University of Maryland College Park -- which boasts of graduating more blacks than any other predominantly white institution -- a counselor warns incoming black freshmen to be ready for hostility. "Not everyone is going to like you at this university," the counselor warns them. "As a matter of fact, some people will wish you weren't here."

In the 1960s, as integration began, "there was this hype that everything would be forgotten and we would all live in one big happy family," says Earl S. Richardson, president of Morgan State. "It's clear that has yet to be realized."

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