Blues for blacks at Bluefield State: African Americans awkwardly strive to regain a presence at the nation’s whitest HBCU

Blues for blacks at Bluefield State: African Americans awkwardly strive to regain a presence at the nation’s whitest HBCU – historically black colleges and universities

Ronald Roach

More than one hundred years after the founding of Bluefield State College, the main campus remains poised high upon a hill above railroad tracks and overlooking the town’s business district. For generations, the children of Black families living largely in southern West Virginia earned college degrees from this small teacher’s college.

However in the past three decades, the local Black community together with middle-aged and elderly Black alumni have watched this formerly all-Black residential college transform into a predominantly White commuter school with community college offerings.

For Susie Guyton, a 1953 graduate of Bluefield State College, the national alumni association meetings used to be a time for rekindling ties with former classmates and other alumni. But last month when members of the Bluefield State College national alumni association returned to their alma mater, they found a campus that, for the first time in its 103-year history, has no Black faculty members.

“I’m very disappointed with the way the school is turning out,” Guyton says.

Bluefield State offers what many believe to be the starkest example of a public historically Black institution losing its original identity to the demands of desegregation (see chart on pg. 18 for a listing of The Ten Whitest HBCUs). Despite their traditional mission, several public historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) around the country have come under court orders or state legislative mandates to become integrated institutions. Bluefield State, with an enrollment of more than 2,500 students, had just 177 Black students this past school year, making it the Whitest HBCU in the nation.

Changing the Course of History

Desegregation began at Bluefield State in the 1950s, when White Korean War veterans started attending the school. The college is one of two historically Black institutions in West Virginia. The other, West Virginia State College (WVSC), located in Kanawha County, still has a Black president and several Black faculty — but it too has become predominantly White. Under state mandates, Bluefield State has grown from less than a thousand students in the 1960s, when it was predominantly Black, to more than 2,500 students now.

Years ago, Bluefield State College sat at the heart of the Black community in this southern West Virginia coal mining community. Now, there are few visible signs on campus that the school once served an all-Black student population with a predominantly Black staff. Black enrollment at Bluefield State has fallen to roughly 8 percent of the school population. At West Virginia State, African Americans constitute 13 percent of the student population.

“My relatives tell me it was a completely different place when they were younger,” says Andrea Mitchell, a twenty-one-year-old African American senior at Bluefield. “My mother and my grandmother both went to [the school]. They talk about how great it was when it was mostly Black.”

Changes in student body composition have resulted from school growth and demographic shifts in West Virginia. Over the past forty years, a slumping economy, caused largely by a decline in West Virginia’s coal mining industry, has led to a substantial decrease in the African American population in West Virginia. Between 1950 and 1990, the state’s African American population fell 56 percent. Currently, Blacks make up less than 3 percent of the state’s population, and just 6 percent of Mercer County, which is where Bluefield is located.

Given that, the institution receives more than $1 million annually in federal funding because of its HBCU status. Black alumni and others have questioned why Bluefield State administrators have allowed the school to lose all its Black faculty. Some critics contend that school administrators have systematically eliminated African Americans from faculty positions and are deliberately attempting to whitewash the cultural roots of the school.

On May 10, the day of Bluefield State’s spring graduation ceremonies, Guyton and nearly fifty alumni gathered at a meeting to demand answers from Dr. Robert E. Moore, president of Bluefield State, about why the school has no Black faculty. The alumni also tried to get an explanation about a reported controversy involving alleged racial discrimination and harassment on the campus.

The alumni, several of whom were aware that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) had launched an inquiry into a racial harassment and discrimination complaint by a White former faculty member, had numerous questions for Moore. In response to the federal inquiry of discrimination charges, Moore’s administration recently agreed to develop a plan that would increase school efforts to hire Black faculty. U.S. Department of Education officials will monitor the college’s progress for a period of five years. Nevertheless, several alumni came away from the meeting with Moore disappointed.

“I don’t feel that he answered us. He says the same thing every year,” said Guyton, who is president of the local alumni chapter in the Bluefield area.

With twenty-four years of service at the school, Moore is a veteran administrator at Bluefield State. A tall, gray-bearded man with an athletic build, he speaks proudly of belonging to the community of HBCU presidents. To his knowledge, he is the only White president of an HBCU, and counts fellow HBCU presidents as close colleagues.

Moore, who has just completed his fifth year as college president, has successfully sought Title III funding which is earmarked under Part B, “Strengthening lack Colleges and Universities” in the federal government’s Higher Education ct. Since 1987, a period of eleven academic years, the college has received early $11 million. Title III funding in the past five years has totaled nearly $5.6 million. The funds have largely supported formation technology and curriculum and staff development, according to administration documents.

Since the 1960s, Bluefield State has shifted its curriculum and programs away from teacher education to health and technology fields. Previously, the college had on-campus dormitories, but after a controversial campus bombing incident in 1968, they were closed permanently. As a consequence, the school was transformed from a residential college to a commuter school.

“We have an excellent track record of using the [HBCU] dollars and being accountable.” Moore says.

With the curriculum changes and school growth, Title III funding has become a critical component of the school’s $16 million annual budget, according to Moore. The funding is also helping the school to develop distance learning capabilities.

Faculty Whiteout Sparks Protests

Moore explains that over the years many African American faculty members retired from departments that were being downsized. He also maintains that administrators have had a difficult time recruiting Black faculty to positions at newer departments.

“[The curriculum shift] has put some stress on our traditional faculty,” Moore says.

Bluefield State has been under pressure to reduce the number of both state-funded and federal-funded positions. Administrative documents reveal that the college has reduced its workforce by approximately thirty positions since May of 1994. This past year, the school employed 198 people, seventy-seven of whom are faculty.

More recently, the 1996 decision by three African American faculty members to participate voluntarily in a severance plan led directly to the complete disappearance of Black faculty, according to Moore.

Alarmed members of the campus community, however, cited the decision to eliminate the faculty position of Linville Hawthorne, an associate professor of criminal justice, as the lowest point of the Moore administration. Hawthorne was the campus’s last Black faculty member.

Hawthorne had taught at Bluefield State for seven years prior to his dismissal. He says school officials informed him in 1996 that he and other criminal justice teaching staff faced the possibility of dismissal because of low funding. Yet Hawthorne assumed he would be spared because he worked at satellite campuses where expansion was taking place. To his chagrin, Hawthorne was given a part-time teaching position during the fall.

Last fall, several Black alumni, Black and White students, and White faculty members deemed the faculty situation intolerable and took a dramatic stand at a public meeting on campus. Both Black and White speakers took turns criticizing the Moore administration for its alleged insensitivity to Black faculty members and alleged efforts to rid the school of historic Black history books and paintings of former Black administrators.

Twenty-eight-year-old Lesli Rucker is a second generation Black student who felt compelled at last fall’s public hearing to complain about conditions at the college.

“It was frustrating to see the school fail at retaining Black faculty,” Rucker says, adding that she considered quitting Bluefield State because of the campus controversy, but decided against it. “If it had gotten worse, I would have left.”

Dr. Garrett Olmsted, a White sociologist and the former faculty member whose complaint led to the OCR investigation, was among the protest leaders. He and others believed the administration unfairly singled out Hawthorne for dismissal while continuing to employ a White faculty member in his department with reportedly less teaching experience. So, the Harvard-trained Olmsted began organizing people to speak out about Hawthorne’s dilemma and the administration’s treatment of Black faculty.

“Some twenty Black staffers were terminated over the past twelve years. That didn’t happen by accident,” Olmsted says.

At the meeting where speakers criticized the Moore administration, several West Virginia state officials attended because the public hearing was organized as part of the state’s five-year review of Moore. Criticism of the Moore administration attracted local, state, and national news media coverage.

Rucker contends that White students defending the Moore administration acted with hostility by berating students who ad criticized the administration.

“I had a confrontation with some of [the Moore administration defenders], but they backed off,” Rucker says.

Olmsted says the controversy also motivated some White students to target him for intimidation. He alleges that students threatened him with violence for siding with Blacks and that one White student went as far as trying to run him over with a car.

In response to the criticism, Moore established a fourteen-member task force last November to advise the school on the recruitment and retention of minority students and faculty. Moore describes the group as composed of “respected and knowledgeable African American leaders from our service area … [who will] further investigate minority recruitment strategies employed elsewhere.”

“I was extremely offended by the fact that as an HBCU [Bluefield State] had no Black faculty and few Black students,” says J. Franklin Long, an African American attorney and an alumni of the college who was appointed to the task force. He says the black community was outraged at what is occurring at the university.

“For a long period of time, you had no Black faculty being hired by the college. When Black faculty members left, they were replaced by Whites,” Long says.

In early December, Olmsted lodged a formal complaint with OCR, charging that the college discriminated against Black faculty on the basis of race. He also charged that he had been threatened and harassed because of his efforts to protest discrimination. He had stopped going to the Bluefield campus out of fear for his safety, and early that next semester, he was fired from his tenured teaching position. Olmsted has filed grievances against Bluefield State College for its actions, which are being considered by a local court.

In response to charges that the school has a hostile environment toward minorities or Whites who sided with Blacks over the Hawthorne dismissal, Moore says, “I don’t see it.”

Moore attributes the Black faculty loss, in part, to “a decision on the part of fifteen employees, including three African American faculty, to participate voluntarily in a severance plan introduced at Bluefield State in 1996.” Recruiting new African American faculty has proven difficult, he says, because the school has been unable to pay competitive enough salaries.

Optimistic New Leadership

In February, Bluefield State officials hired Dr. Ronando Holland as the school’s first director of multicultural affairs. The position was established after school officials had consulted with presidents of three regional higher education institutions, according to Moore. Holland, an African American native of the Bluefield area, has a Ph.D. in political science from Duke University and is a graduate of Marshall University in West Virginia

A soft-spoken man, Holland is determined to recruit Black faculty and Black students to Bluefield State. The task of luring more Black students to the campus has prompted him to develop a broad array of outreach efforts that seek to link the college with Black churches and area public schools. Holland believes that building relationships between the college and Blacks in southern West Virginia will help entice a steady stream of Black students to the school.

“We’re going to prepare minority students to get a college education and to do better in the schools. We think we can help,” he says.

This past spring, Holland helped launch college outreach programs that target Black youths in junior and senior high school for tutoring, expanded college recruiting efforts to reach more Blacks in the Bluefield area, and created a summer remedial program designed to lure young Black males. A network of churches have pledged to play host to the tutoring programs for Black students, according to Holland.

Holland believes his strategy of recruiting from the southern part of the state will make it possible to dramatically increase the numbers of Black students at Bluefield State. Even though some alumni have become reluctant to send their children to the college, Holland believes that dozens of area Black teenagers whose families don’t have ties to the school could benefit from attending the school.

By setting an ambitious goal of taking Black enrollment from 177 to 250 students by this fall, Holland hopes to make use of Bluefield State’s newly hired Black counselor. The task of increasing Black enrollment to 250 means that the number of incoming Black freshmen would need to balloon from last year’s level of roughly forty-five to at least 110.

Yet, attracting more Black students to the campus is not, in Holland’s opinion, the biggest challenge. He is working even harder to make sure they stick around. Although he has not experienced racial tension on the campus firsthand, Holland has taken measures to improve student life for Blacks and other minorities, which include a significant contingent of Arab students.

One such initiative is Minorities on the Move, a predominantly Black student organization devoted to improving the social life of minority students on campus.

Torrance Ray, president of Minorities on the Move, a tall twenty-six-year-old Black junior, says he believes the administration is seriously committed to increasing the numbers of Black students on campus.

“They want to see more Black students. They’ve been very supportive of our organization because we were also trying to increase the numbers of Blacks on campus,” he says.

But the recruitment and retention of Black students is, in Holland’s opinion, one of Bluefield’s easier tasks. He cites faculty recruitment as a much greater challenge.

“This is not going to be one of the most attractive places for Black [faculty] to come,” he says.

Nevertheless, it’s possible that the college will hire two Black scholars whom Holland helped to identify.

“I think we’re going to get at least a couple of Black faculty members,” Holland predicts.

Feds Are Watching Bluefield

As part of the agreement reached between Bluefield State and the ED’s Office for Civil Rights, the college will be monitored for a period of five years. Faculty hiring will come under particular scrutiny during the monitoring period.

“The report will provide detailed information about each faculty vacancy which occurred during the year including, but not limited to, all search and recruitment activities, participation of Black staff in the process, the number of applicants and offers by race, reasons for not hiring minority applicants, and any other actions taken to achieve the plan objectives,” according to the agreement.

College officials say they were pleased the agreement required little time and no visits by federal authorities.

“It was gratifying to the president and to the college that OCR did not seek a site-based investigation,” college spokesman Jim Nelson said.

Ergie Smith, who is chairman of the task force committee on minority recruitment, says he believes it’s possible that Bluefield State can regain credibility within the Black community in southern West Virginia and with its Black alumni, but is cautious. “I’m guardedly optimistic,” he says.

RELATED ARTICLE: What Is An HBCU?

In 1965 the U.S. Congress formally designated at Historically Black Colleges and Universities those institutions that were founded before 1964 whose principal mission was the education of Black Americans.

Most of those colleges were founded either immediately before the Civil War on in the decades afterward by churches, many of them funded through the Freedman’s Bureau and private philanthropy.

Today, according to the Department of Education, there are 114 federally designated HBCUs — including graduate institutions — which are eligible to receive federal money through Title III of the Higher Education Act.

BI

THE NUMBERS

The Ten Whitest HBCUs

RANK INSTITUTION STATE BLACK AS A

PERCENTAGE OF

TOTAL ENROLLMENT

1993- 1997-

1994(*) 1998(**)

1 Bluefield State College W.V. 8 8

2 West Virginia State College W.V. 13 13

3 Lincoln University Mo. 26 26

4 J.F. Drake State Technical

College Ala. 45 45

5 Kentucky State University Ky. 49 51

6 Bishop State Community College Ala. 52 54

7 Langston University Okla. 51 51

8 Tennessee State University Tenn. 59 60

9 Delaware State University Del. 62 62

10 Fayetteville State University N.C. 64 64

Source:

(*) 1993-1994 figures provided by National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education

(**) 1997-1998 figures provided by CollegeView

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group