Black colleges at crossroads


Heritage: Created during segregation, Mississippi's schools are being asked to integrate - and give up part of their identity - for long-needed state money.

May 19, 2001|By Jeffrey Gettleman | Jeffrey Gettleman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LORMAN, Miss. - From a sixth-floor office overlooking 1,700 blooming acres, Clinton Bristow Jr. shared a vision recently - one that verges on reality.

Bristow, president of Alcorn State University, a predominantly black college founded 130 years ago to teach former slaves how to grow cotton, wants to transform his rural campus into a research center with state-of-the-art food science labs, health care programs and an agribusiness degree that will attract the best students anywhere, black and white.

"That's the 21st-century way of education," Bristow says as he gazes out of his window across the tops of dogwood trees. "Alcorn is always going to be a predominantly black school, because those are our traditions, and our traditions are strong. But race matters less to kids these days. And to compete for students of all types, we have to evolve."

Evolution is precisely what's in store for historically black colleges, one of the last publicly supported holdovers from the days of segregation and a distinctly Southern institution.

Every state in the South opened schools such as Alcorn during the Jim Crow era. And every state in the South has kept them open even though grammar schools are integrated, high schools are integrated and each year more black students head off to predominantly white colleges and universities.

But in Mississippi there has been an especially intense attachment to a dual, almost duplicative, system of higher education. Mississippi, with the highest percentage of black residents of any state, 36 percent, has three predominantly black state schools and five mostly white ones.

Despite a well-documented legacy of neglect, the black colleges continue to attract the majority of the state's black students and have become cherished depositories of black heritage.

Last month, the state agreed to spend $503 million to improve the three black schools - one of the largest desegregation settlements ever. The deal promises to end a sprawling 26-year-old lawsuit and may guide other Southern states struggling with the issue. But it came with this proviso: Black schools must become less black.

To gain control of all the settlement money, Alcorn, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State must make 10 percent of their enrollments nonblack (or non-African American - it's still up in the air how to count the few black exchange students from Africa).

Though educators have shied away from the using the words "quota" and "affirmative action," many of the nation's 120 historically black colleges have already launched outreach programs, including Alcorn.

"Hey, if the white schools are now going after my potential customers, I'd be remiss if I didn't go after theirs," Bristow says.

Some find this offensive. "Let me make sure I have this right," says Mary Coleman, a political science professor at Jackson State. "After all these years of discriminating against us, people are now asking us to open our doors?"

The challenges toward integrating Southern state colleges are mighty. In Mississippi, it has become like a well-worn rut in the road for white teens to follow where their parents went and black teens to do the same. Tuition is about $3,000 at all eight state schools, and admission standards are identical.

But Jackson State remains 95 percent black, as does Mississippi Valley State. The University of Mississippi is 82 percent white. Mississippi State is 75 percent white.

Alcorn, nestled in the rolling hills of southwest Mississippi, has the fastest growing nonblack student population, at 8 percent. Many of those students are foreigners.

Many politicians, educators and students here feel comfortable about maintaining de facto segregation in higher education.

"Integration doesn't mean we all have to be together," says Gretchen Duffin, a black senior at Alcorn. "It means we have the choice."

The costs of such choice can be steep: duplication of administrations, libraries, football stadiums and other infrastructure needed to sustain two parallel college systems.

For a small, relatively poor state such as Mississippi, "it wouldn't make sense to have this system if we started out today," says William Winter, a former governor and one of the state's leading progressives. "But we can't dismiss the historical factor for efficiency."

To shut down or dilute black schools would endanger a crucial part of black heritage, says E. Ethelbert Miller of Howard University, a private college in Washington.

"The archives, the collections, the faculties, the dreams - of emancipated slaves and civil rights heroes - all this is stored on our campuses," Miller says. "We derive a lot of pride from that."

Black schools also offer shelter from bigotry and prejudice: "If you're tall and black, nobody at Howard is going to see you walking across campus and ask if you're on the basketball team," Miller says.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.