Nation's black colleges are drawing more whites Courses and tuition are attractions

May 05, 1993|By Peter Applebome | Peter Applebome,New York Times News Service Staff Writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

ATLANTA -- On his second day as a student at Morehouse College, Michael Davis found himself called onto a stage with the director Spike Lee to address what many students took to be a serious problem at the school: Mr. Davis' presence there.

Thus began Mr. Davis' career as the only white student at Morehouse, the elite black men's school here whose graduates include Mr. Lee and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Few other whites find themselves under quite so glaring a spotlight. But giving an unusual twist to the racial issues on the nation's college campuses, more and more whites are choosing to cross the racial divide and join the minority at the nation's 107 historically black colleges.

One-eighth of the students at those colleges -- 33,953 out of 268,591 -- are white. Most are at 10 formerly all-black institutions, mainly state colleges in the South, that are evolving into racially mixed ones, sometimes under court order. At others, like the private Morehouse College, whites make up only a tiny percentage of the student body.

Baltimore's two historically black institutions -- Coppin State College and Morgan State University -- are still overwhelmingly black, with fewer than 5 percent white students each.

Bowie State University in Prince George's County has attracted larger number of whites for many years. Its nonblack undergraduate enrollment this year was 21 percent.

The University of Maryland Eastern Shore has drawn students of all races to some of its programs and this year had a nonblack enrollment of 28 percent, including whites, Hispanics and foreigners.

Some, like Mr. Davis, are drawn by the cultural and intellectual experience of going to a black school. But most are attracted to particular courses, generally lower tuition costs, and sometimes by concerted efforts by black colleges or state legislators to broaden the schools' student body by recruiting, special programs or scholarships.

At Johnson C. Smith, a private university in Charlotte, N.C., the only three whites are there on football scholarships.

Many whites have experiences far more positive than would ever be expected by those who remain leery of black institutions. Others say they have to confront the same kind of racial stereotyping, isolation and harassment that blacks complain of on predominantly white campuses.

Their experiences reflect contemporary complications of race that go beyond the lessons of the civil rights era. And their presence raises tantalizing questions about the direction of the nation's black colleges, some of which are trying to attract more nonblack students even as they are growing in popularity because of their unrelenting focus on black culture and black achievement.

"What we've done is to grow and bring in higher quality students, both black and white," said Lloyd V. Hackley, the chancellor at Fayetteville State University, which has become the fastest-growing campus in the University of North Carolina system as it has expanded from a campus that was once almost completely black to one where whites now make up 35 percent of the student body.

"You can't legally stand outside the door and block access to higher education to anyone, black or white," he went on. "I tell the alumni that if they want to maintain black dominance, you do it by attracting black students who do good work."

It is illegal to refuse to admit any student on the basis of race, but there is no legal requirement to aggressively seek applicants of a particular race. Some publicly supported black colleges, facing court cases like ones in Mississippi and Louisiana challenging the dual system of education that began during segregation, are making particular efforts to diversify their student body.

Many black students object to the presence of whites at what they see as one of the few institutions in America in which their values and culture predominate.

"If you start admitting whites, then it won't be a black college anymore," said Lee Rankin, an 18-year-old freshman from Philadelphia at Spelman, a private college in Atlanta. "It will be a mixed college, and that's not what I came here for."

But while few education experts see any likelihood that whites will become a major presence at most black schools, many officials believe the universities are likely to become more diverse while maintaining their roots in the black experience.

Mr. Davis last year became the first white to receive a scholarship to Morehouse. Despite occasional slights, he has a positive view of his experience at the school, where he is now a sophomore studying math and engineering.

He said he was drawn by Morehouse's high academic standards and felt that what he saw as sterility and racial insensitivity on white campuses would be more of a drawback than any hostility he encountered at Morehouse. He said some students appreciated his ability to stand up for his right to attend Morehouse, but that he has been shunned by some others.

"I think I'm getting a unique education that will be helpful not just now, but for whatever I end up doing after I leave college," said Mr. Davis, a burly 20-year-old with closely cropped hair who grew up in an integrated neighborhood near Hyde Park in Chicago.

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