Of all the political spectacles of Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency, few could match the improbability of his meeting in the Oval Office in late February with nearly 100 presidents of historically black colleges and universities. The official photo of the event captured a beaming Trump surrounded by a dozen African-American educators smiling and applauding his promise to boost federal funding to their schools. Considering that Trump was the most racially polarizing national politician since George Wallace, the episode inspired an outcry on many HBCU campuses and critical commentary from leading black journalists.
The issue, however, was analyzed almost entirely through the lens of the last decade. Did or didn’t the Obama administration snub HBCU leaders by never inviting them to the Oval Office? Why wasn’t the black-college initiative put under the president rather than the Department of Education? Was Obama quick enough to reverse restrictions on Pell grants that disproportionately affected HBCU students? Will Trump, having made the ceremonial overtures and signed an executive order, follow up with increased funding?
Those questions, though momentarily relevant, miss the overarching point. Trump was not reaching out to HBCUs because he had suddenly discovered his tolerance gene — not after an adult life of consistent racism, from discriminating against nonwhite tenants to demanding the death penalty for the falsely convicted Central Park Five to propounding the birther lie against the first African-American president to encouraging violence against black demonstrators at his campaign rallies.
Instead, Trump was following the historical model of white governors, legislators and boards of regents in the Jim Crow South, who used the financial fragility of HBCUs as leverage to require political submission. That story is at least as old as the Tuskegee Institute of the 1930s that Ralph Ellison ruthlessly satirized in Invisible Man. Then and now, a bigoted political boss with his hands on the piggy bank has sought to make HBCUs into compliant, dependent plantations and reduce black college presidents to supplicants.
“These men are in an impossible situation because their entire usefulness to the state…depends on their ability to influence and control their students,” James Baldwin wrote in an essay about Florida A&M’s president during the sit-in protests at Tallahassee in 1960. “But the students do not trust them, which means the death of their influence and usefulness alike.” Yet rather than chastise those HBCU administrators, Baldwin concluded, “it is more interesting to consider what the present crisis reveals about the system under which they have worked so long.”
A contemporary scholar of HBCU history, Prof. Joy Williamson-Lott of the University of Washington in Seattle, offered a similar perspective. “It was very common,” she said of the acquiescence of HBCU leaders to their segregationist bosses. “Part of it was because they were under duress. The other more generous reading is that these were usually men running a black institution in a white supremacist society. And so keeping the doors of their institution open and allowing black people to crack the middle class was a way to fortify the black community. Some saw their role as making very strategic concessions. Others just made concession concessions.”
While a handful of HBCUs were founded in Northern states, and some of the Southern ones were planted by relatively liberal religious denominations or philanthropists, the majority were created by all-white state governments as a cynical sop to the doctrine of “separate but equal.” Underfunded from the start, initially limited to teaching “practical” subjects like agriculture and mechanics or to training black teachers for all-black schools, the HBCUs engaged in a grand and thrilling pageant of subversion. They became the epicenter of black scholarship, black pride and black self-determination. The civil rights movement could not have occurred without the leaders shaped by HBCUs — Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Diane Nash and Jesse Jackson, just for starters — and the black college students who were the field troops for sit-ins, boycotts and marches.
But the presidents and other top administrators at the HBCUs perched precariously between idealistically restive students and political overseers committed to white dominance. The resulting contortions would almost be funny if they weren’t so infuriating. For instance, the students in FAMU’s renowned music department were made to perform “Dixie” when the state regents held their annual meeting on the campus. A Florida governor once telephoned Jake Gaither, FAMU’s legendary football coach, with an urgent request. Could he find out about the busload of black militants, armed with clubs, heading toward campus. Gaither responded that the governor must be referring to the baseball team from Tuskegee arriving for an afternoon game.
In her research for scholarly articles and her book Radicalizing the Ebony Tower: Black Colleges and the Black Freedom Struggle in Mississippi, 1965-1975, Professor Williamson-Lott found numerous examples of retaliation against students who became involved in the freedom movement. The all-white board of Alcorn A&M in Mississippi expelled the entire student body at one point in the late 1950s. Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi pressured the black president of Jackson State into dissolving the student government that was the hub of campus activism. After the arrest of the Greensboro Four — students at North Carolina A&T who led a lunch counter sit-in — the college’s president had to personally plead before the state legislature to continue funding the school. State-controlled HBCUs were not allowed to confer tenure, leaving politically engaged faculty vulnerable to dismissal, and even professors at private HBCUs in the South could be intimidated by having their membership in groups like the NAACP publicized.
As Homecoming Week unfolded at Grambling State University in October 1967, two dramas loomed over the campus. One was the Tigers’ impending football game against Texas Southern, a key step toward a conference championship. The other involved a group of student protestors calling themselves The Informers, who had taken over a quadrangle to call attention to the educational inequalities that persisted at the black college in northern Louisiana 13 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision had declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional.
While the demonstrations built, the state’s segregationist governor, John McKeithen, ordered 500 National Guard troops to assemble at an armory in Ruston, the mostly white and notoriously hostile town 5 miles from Grambling. The governor’s implicit message to Grambling’s president, Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, was blunt: Either you do something about the troublemakers or I will. To back up his threat, McKeithen and the rest of Louisiana’s all-white political structure held power over Grambling’s budget and many aspects of hiring and firing.
So Jones, a proud man with far more education than the governor, had to capitulate. He officially asked for troops to be sent onto campus. He expelled several dozen of the protest leaders, including the brilliant young scholar who was student body president, Willie Zanders. Years later, Zanders would reconcile with an apologetic President Jones and become a civil rights attorney.
One might think that the eventual triumph of the civil rights movement, and the South’s belated and begrudging acceptance of federal laws and Supreme Court decisions, had ended the need for the HBCU president to play the proverbial Head Negro In Charge who mediates with the white power structure. But true economic parity between HBCUs and predominantly white institutions, known by the shorthand PWI, has yet to be achieved.
When Grambling’s football players boycotted a game against Jackson State in 2013, they were protesting more than the decrepit conditions in the weight room or the thousand-mile bus trips to away games. Those indignities derived from the same state budget cuts and punitive policies that were eviscerating Grambling’s academic programs. Between 2007 and 2013, state aid to Grambling fell from $31.6 million to $13.8. Louisiana’s right-wing governor then, Bobby Jindal, boasted about turning down stimulus money from the Obama administration that might have softened the blow to Grambling during the Great Recession.
A study by the research and advocacy group Young Invincibles awarded grades of D or F for support of higher education to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — a large part of the HBCU heartland. No state in the Southeast got better than a C. And four of the eight states to make the most severe cuts to higher education since the recession began in 2008 are in the Deep South, with Louisiana and Alabama rated the two worst. Four HBCUs in Maryland are currently involved in a lawsuit against the state for continuing inequity in funding, among other issues.
Admittedly, the reduction in financial support in deeply red states affects all public colleges and universities, not just HBCUs. But because HBCUs disproportionately educate the working poor and the lower middle class, students who neither come from nor go on to ancestral wealth, HBCUs cannot rely on rich donors to fill endowments that can compensate for slashes in state aid. Grambling State, with about 4,800 students, has an endowment of just $4.5 million. Five miles away, the PWI Louisiana Tech has about three times as many students — and nearly 17 times as large an endowment. Not even the best-endowed private HBCUs can compete. Howard University, with about 10,000 students, has a $660 million endowment. Across town, 4,700-student Georgetown rests atop an endowment of $1.5 billion.
So federal support, especially in the form of Pell Grants to students, has become ever more a lifeline for HBCUs. The terrible tragedy, the one foreseen by James Baldwin, is that pure need leads to reliance on even the most repugnant political leaders. Donald Trump’s governing model, to the degree he has one, has been monarchical. Surrounded by family members and obsequious courtiers, he alone bestows favor, such as saving a couple hundred jobs at a Carrier factory in Indiana. The recipient of kingly largesse, of course, is expected to offer unstinting loyalty in return.
Trump’s effort to co-opt HBCUs, and the internal rift it has caused at black colleges, began with his invitation to the band from Talladega College in Alabama to perform in his inaugural parade. Grass roots opposition, including an online petition, immediately took off. As the award-winning poet and professor Nikky Finney, a 1979 graduate of Talladega, told National Public Radio: “Bags of money and the promise of opportunity have always been waved in front of the faces and lives of struggling human beings, who have historically been relegated to the first-fired and the last-hired slots of life. It has been used to separate us before. It has now been used to separate us again.”
But another illustrious alumnus, William Harvey, who is now president of Hampton Institute, defended the band’s participation. “This will be a wonderful experience for the student musician,” he wrote on CNN.com: “It will be a moment for them to understand the importance of supporting the leader of the free world, despite one’s political viewpoint. The chief reason-for-being of any college and university should be to promote learning, not to enhance a political agenda.”
Ultimately, the Talladega Band did perform in the parade, but the conflict around Trump and the HBCUs hardly abated. In official comments to mark the beginning of Black History Month on Feb. 1, Trump spoke with stunning ignorance about the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, calling him “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” Not only did Trump plainly know nothing about Douglass’ anti-slavery crusade, it evidently escaped the president’s awareness that Douglass had died well more than a century ago.
Nonetheless, nearly all of the 104 HBCU presidents in the United States accepted Trump’s offer of a White House meeting at the end of Black History Month. That encounter was immediately and expediently seized upon by Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, in her longstanding project to privatize public education. She extolled black colleges as “real pioneers in school choice.”
DeVos’ ahistorical assertion proved too much for at least one HBCU president, John Silvanus Wilson of Morehouse College in Atlanta. In a formal rebuke, Wilson wrote: “HBCUs were not created because the 4 million newly freed blacks were unhappy with the choices they had. They were created because they had no choices at all. That is not just a very important distinction, it is profoundly important. Why? Because, if one does not understand the crippling and extended horrors of slavery, then how can one really understand the subsequent history and struggle of African-Americans, or the current necessities and imperatives that grow out of that history and struggle?”
Wilson’s statement instantly drew criticism from some members of Morehouse’s board of trustees, and there were rumors he would be fired as a result. While he was not ousted, he is retiring at the end of the current academic year. And of HBCU campuses whose presidents did not stand up to Trump, many students assailed their top administrators.
A group of student journalists from HBCUs provided an especially thorough report on the campus schism for the website The Undefeated. Even as HBCU leaders tried to justify the White House visit in terms of opening up access to the Trump administration, students viewed the meeting as a sellout. “Trump wants to sugarcoat his bigotry to the HBCU presidents,” said Daryl Riley Jr., a sophomore at Hampton Institute. A junior at Howard University, Collin Scott, told The Undefeated: “I don’t expect anything to come from this HBCU executive order, especially given the bigoted behavior that Trump’s presence has brought.” Students at Howard, which is located just 2 miles from the White House, spray-painted on the campus quad, “Welcome To Trump Plantation.”
Perhaps Trump will actually make good on his promise to increase federal aid to HBCUs. Or perhaps the White House meeting will turn out to have been mere theater. The proposed federal budget did not increase assistance to HBCUs. Trump’s closest black adviser, former Apprentice contestant and HBCU alumna Omarosa Manigault, tried to persuade the Congressional Black Caucus that it was a victory not to have had federal funding for HBCUs cut.
Whatever the outcome, the HBCU presidents will now be in the business of explaining to their faculty, their students and most of all themselves how they could possibly have accompliced themselves to a man with a proven record of race hate, right up through denigrating the heroic John Lewis as some kind of woofing windbag.
“The whole marketing ploy for blacks to vote for Trump was, ‘What have you got to lose?'” said Professor Williamson-Lott. “So I think of this man’s total disregard and disrespect. He has no idea of what would help. Nor do any of his advisers. So you’re meeting him. You have the photo-op. And then what?”