DECEMBER 31, 2020
HISTORICALLY BLACK COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES (HBCUs) — many with 19th-century segregationist roots — are gaining attention in the news this year. Institutions like Morehouse, Tuskegee, and Grambling have seen growing endowments and more competitive applicant pools. The vice-president-elect is a pathbreaking graduate of one: Howard University is right to be proud of Kamala Harris, ’86. Even the toxic figure Donald Trump has bragged of being a fan.
Yet, in the midst of this attention, HBCUs are also facing a deficit in their leadership pipelines and have had to navigate the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The old saying that when America catches a cold, Black America gets the flu is an apt analogy for HBCUs.
Jelani M. Favors’s recent book, Shelter in a Time of Storm: How Black Colleges Fostered Generations of Leadership and Activism, tells the stories of seven Black institutions: Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, Tougaloo College, Bennett College, Alabama State University, Jackson State University, Southern University, and North Carolina A&T State University. It is a powerful and dynamic narrative of the activism, liberation, and, in some cases, subversion that are indicative of the climate and spirit of HBCUs.
Favors makes masterful use of memoirs, college newspapers, diaries, oral histories, memos, and minutes. The result is a well-documented, lavishly detailed, spellbinding, and intimate portrayal of the HBCU experience, which was designed not only to educate but also to raise up next generations of Black leaders. Favors demonstrates how this spirit was present when the first Black institution of higher learning was founded in the late 1830s and remains vital today. Activism and even militancy on these campuses — manifested in different ways — provided students with a holistic experience that was designed to introduce them to and prepare them against larger forces, like psychological and physical violence, racial hatred, and other forms of oppression that would undoubtedly confront them in the larger society.
Notably, Favors dispels many tales about HBCUs that have credited college presidents, Black trustees, a few influential Black leaders, White philanthropists, and well-known entertainers for the evolution, vibrancy, and well-being of such institutions. Rather, he argues that actual revolutionary activism was generated from the bottom and the center. He demonstrates how students across HBCUs successfully developed intercalary avenues by conducting what Favors refers to as a “second curriculum” that was robust, revelatory, and largely emancipatory.
The truth is that many students who attended Black colleges and universities knew that student rebellion and activism were a direct threat to groups who aimed to subvert and undercut democracy and freedom, and they responded deftly, shrewdly, and accordingly to such resistance. Favors documents the intricacies of such movements and how they were frequently subverted and sabotaged by both exterior and interior forces.
Favors also makes clear that HBCU leaders spanned the political spectrum and were far from monolithic in their outlook and approach. He presents one inspirational example in the third chapter: David Dallas Jones, who was at the helm of Bennett College during the first half of the 20th century, was savvy and deliberate in his efforts to kindle the fire of activism among the all-female student body by exposing them to prominent Black intellectuals and activists of the era.
But the message “Say it loud. I’m Black and I’m proud” (or even “I’m Negro and proud”) was not adopted by all HBCU leaders. Favors provides one notable example in chapter six: Dr. Felton Clark of Southern University was a conservative college president who repressed dissent by expelling outspoken students, prohibiting any form of progressive activity by faculty members, and banning publication of the campus newspaper among many other restrictions. Favors does not absolve Clark for adopting such repressive tactics, but also notes that his regressive stance mirrored the autocracy of the White society surrounding him.
Deep Southern states like Louisiana were hotbeds of the Ku Klux Klan and other White supremacists who, in the name of segregation, were both supporters and antagonists of Black colleges. Benefactors and politicians in state legislatures controlled the purse strings of HBCUs. Running afoul of such people would likely mean a loss of financial support. Forms of conspicuous pride or dissent were seen as “getting too uppity” and were sometimes answered with violence.
In recent days, another challenge has emerged: the historic emphasis on philosophy and the humanities has been displaced by a focus on STEM and the consequent material rewards. HBCUs have long aimed to foster an environment that is conducive to spiritual growth and compassion. Recent emphasis on the hard sciences has mitigated this idealism and passion — a transformation that Favors finds disturbing and disheartening.
Shelter in a Time of Storm is a demonstrably formidable work of scholarship on many levels. Perhaps most important is Favors’s admirable ability to situate both the commonalities and distinctions among HBCUs and to effectively contrast such experiences to what often occurs at other institutions of higher education. Moreover, his deft discussion of the pivotal role that Black colleges and universities play in their local communities, even against sometimes adversarial forces, is nothing short of splendid.
To those who question HBCUs’ modern viability and suggest that higher education should be fully integrated, Favors makes the case clear: sacred spaces matter. In an era of continued racial inequality, the home-away-from-home environment that HBCUs provide remains beneficial, if not crucial, for many students today.
Elwood Watson, PhD is a professor of history, African American studies, gender and sexuality studies, and popular culture. His book Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America was published by University of Chicago Press in 2019.