Historically Black colleges weigh solutions as threats to campus security multiply — Andscape
Separate shootings last week at Morgan State and Bowie State, two historically Black colleges in Maryland only 35 miles apart, have raised a fresh round of concerns in the HBCU community, which has been grappling in recent years with an increasing number of security risks.
Incidents of gun violence, coupled with racist threats and local risks occurring daily, have put HBCUs on alert individually and collectively as students, faculty, staff, administrators and families are forced to figure out how to fit safety in with every other educational goal.
On Tuesday, Morgan State leaders announced plans to build a wall around most of the northeast Baltimore campus and station security personnel at entrances and exits, a week after a shooting on campus left five people injured during homecoming festivities. It is the third consecutive year gun violence has marred Morgan’s homecoming, and two other people were shot Oct. 7 during homecoming weekend at Bowie State.
The shootings occurred just over a month after a public safety officer at Edward Waters University, an HBCU in Jacksonville, Florida, diverted a man from campus who fatally shot three people at a nearby Dollar General store minutes later.
Terrell Strayhorn, associate provost at Virginia Union University and director of the university’s Center for the Study of HBCUs, has not only studied the multitude of dangers HBCUs face but has dealt with those dangers directly as an administrator at Virginia Union and other schools. Speaking before the shootings at Morgan and Bowie, Strayhorn noted threats on and to HBCU campuses have never been far from their thoughts or low on their priority lists.
“I wish I could say, ‘This is so unexpected. This is so unheard of. We haven’t seen this before. This is an anomaly.’ But it’s not,” Strayhorn said. “If you were to sit down and write the history of the United States, it would be spread throughout.
“In the section that addresses Black spaces and Black life in America, there has to be a unit devoted to this larger, longer, ongoing sort of pattern of violence and intimidation. And, I hate to say it … but we have to call it domestic terrorism.”
Ongoing threats were in the spotlight throughout 2022, when over half of the more than 100 HBCUs in America received at least one bomb threat, prompting federal law enforcement, including the FBI and Department of Homeland Security, to investigate. Not coincidentally, the attacks began around Martin Luther King Jr. Day and accelerated on the first day of February, Black History Month. No bombs were ever found, and eventually a minor was charged with making the threats, which forced campuses into constant lockdowns, class cancellations and even evacuations.
Many HBCUs, while in struggling neighborhoods, do not actually have barriers, gates or security entrances; “open” campus is the term used to describe them.
“I have been at meetings with HBCU presidents and provosts who talk about, ‘We’ve got to find some money to strengthen the fence. We got to find some money to raise the fence. We got to find some money to replace the fence,’ ” Strayhorn said, pointing to a persistent dilemma in HBCU circles: Will a physical barrier, like the wall Morgan plans to install, around campuses make them safer, and if so, what are the financial and psychological costs?
Those administrators’ thoughts, Strayhorn said, were this: “It’s not about keeping themselves away from the community. It’s about protecting themselves and their students from harm – harm from local violence and from these kinds of serious attacks.”
Even with the long history of attacks on Black institutions of higher education, those same officials also were wary of precisely the kind of violence that took place at Morgan and Bowie this month, as well as other incidents that have occurred since the summer either on or near the campuses of Howard, Alabama A&M, Norfolk State, Tuskegee and Virginia State universities.
Walter Kimbrough, former president of Dillard University in New Orleans, wanted to keep up awareness of those kinds of threats, at least as much as those from racist offenders, even before the Morgan and Bowie shootings.
“It’s just day-to-day gun violence, which you can see anywhere,” Kimbrough said. “The bomb threats were something different, and in terms [of] predicting that there’s going to be some kind of mass gun incident at an HBCU – I mean, it hasn’t happened. It doesn’t say that it couldn’t. But, you know, it’s just the day-to-day violence that surrounds the communities in which HBCUs are located are more of the issue, and so it’s figuring out how do we deal with gun violence as a whole. It’s a reminder that HBCUs are in those communities, and they’re not immune.”
Strayhorn agreed, noting LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was vice president for academic and student affairs until 2019, is located in a ZIP code that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is among the poorest in the state.
“I didn’t say the city, I said the entire state,” Strayhorn emphasized, adding the resulting crime in and around the HBCU campus meant it had to find a way to beef up security while still persuading families to send their children there and convincing faculty to join it and stay.
That, in turn, raises a host of questions whose answers affect every level of the HBCU community: How much security is enough security? Who pays for it? And how much police is too much police, especially to the people being policed? (Within days of the shootings at both Morgan and Bowie, school officials announced the police presence on both campuses would be increased.)
“It’s a vast subject, and there’s so many layers to it,” said Tsanonda Edwards, a Morgan State alumnus who is the co-founder of the community youth mental health program Above It All in Baltimore.
Furthermore, the troubled people who endanger students may well be other students who need mental health or other kinds of support to address their problems before they reach for a weapon, Edwards said.
“When you’re talking about the death threats previously and you’re talking about that racial component that’s there, that’s one thing,” Edwards said. “And then there’s [the Morgan shooting]. It probably didn’t have a racial component to it, but something’s going on. And then you’re talking about, again, the impact on the students on the campus and the staff and the parents.”
Managing all that means, at its core, having the money to do so, a perpetual problem at HBCUs. Less than three weeks before the shootings at Morgan and Bowie, President Biden’s administration presented the most concrete proof yet that states had habitually underfunded historically Black land-grant institutions by up to $12.6 billion between 1987 and 2020 alone.
The funding shortfall means money that will now be directed toward making students feel safe and protected on those campuses, in whatever form that might take, can’t be spent in other areas of need, Strayhorn said.
“These are not dollars that we can put to expanding our laboratories, providing the students the education that they want, giving our faculty competitive salaries,” he said, adding those are not choices one of LeMoyne-Owen’s neighbor, the University of Memphis, would have to make. “Bless their hearts, but it’s got all sorts of resources available, and it’s not thinking about these kinds of issues and using this money in that way.”
The need to ensure campus safety at HBCUs doesn’t resolve internal debates about the security choices they have to make, Kimbrough said. “Sometimes it just becomes a thing to say – something happens in the area, you ask, ‘What about our safety?’ OK, well, we can have enhanced safety measures, but as soon as we enhance them, then people say, ‘That’s too much.’ “
However, Kimbrough said, there is an advantage HBCU campuses have, and it may have saved those present on the Edward Waters campus the day of the fatal shootings on Aug. 26: The white supremacist who ultimately killed three people in the city’s largest Black neighborhood had initially parked in a university lot and began donning tactical gear but was driven away after suspicious students notified security.
“That was very easy to point out before anything happened, and so that’s just a role that you have as a tight-knit community,” Kimbrough said. “That dude stuck out like a sore thumb, and it was just like, ‘He doesn’t belong here.’ And that’s what should happen.
“So, that’s what you tell people – ‘That’s our strength.’ We say we know each other, we have a tight-knit community. … I think that’s why they were in a better position to protect themselves. Had he been at the University of Florida, it would have been a different story, a completely different story.”
Edward Waters University president A. Zachary Faison Jr. said as much at a news conference two days after the shooting, praising the students who alerted campus security of the shooter’s presence. Faison was even more emphatic, though, about what he saw as the gunman’s motivation.
“Let me say for the record that this white supremacist presence at EWU did not happen by mere happenstance,” he said. “He well knew where he was and what signal and message he might send had he been successful in his aims to commit this heinous act at the bastion and birthplace of Black higher education in this state.”
Strayhorn, one of dozens of HBCU administrators who reached out to Edwards Waters in the ensuing weeks – as administrators also did to Morgan and Bowie in the days following the shootings there – said he found strength and a lesson from Faison’s words and the actions of the students, before and especially afterward.
They returned to classes and resumed activities, Strayhorn said, just as students did after the bomb threats last year. It reminded him of how the congregations at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, returned to services following the murders of congregants in racist attacks, and how residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma, rebuilt its Black Wall Street after it was destroyed by a white mob more than a century ago.
Just as enrollment at HBCUs stayed high despite the coronavirus pandemic three years ago, he added, enrollment did the same through the bomb threats in 2022 and into this year.
“I feel like there’s a story to be told, some thread of the story, that even in the presence of threat and violence and domestic terrorism, isn’t it remarkable how resilient, how strong, how determined Black folk are?” he said, pausing briefly to collect his emotions. “And it’s an active resistance – I mean, for those folks, a very visible act of resistance, a form of protests, maybe even nonviolent protest, is just getting up and going to church on Sunday and saying, you know what, we’re still going to be here.”