Bomb threats show black struggle for freedom continues
At 9.35 am last Monday (7 February), just before sitting down to write this article, I heard a chirp signalling the arrival of an email. It was from Andrea Farmer, the executive director of community relations at Hinds Community College in Mississippi, whom I hoped to interview about the bomb threats this historically black college and more than a dozen other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States received on 1 February.
The email did not, however, contain the expected list of possible times we might speak. Instead, the email, which contained a media statement, showed in real time the constant threat under which those who work and study at the America’s 107 HBCUs live. The statement, for “Immediate Release”, said that because of a non-specific bomb threat, this HBCU, founded in 1917, was closing four of its six campuses.
At 3am a week earlier, 200 miles south, at Xavier University of Louisiana (XUL), Vice-President Patrice Bell was awakened by a call from campus security informing her that the university had received a bomb threat. Since the library was open 24 hours a day, she told me, one of the first things the university did was order students to return to their dorms and shelter in place.
Just before leaving for the campus, she paused at her daughters’ beds and kissed the sleeping high school senior and college junior, saying, “Mom has to go to campus”, before adding the reassuring words, “I’ll be okay”.
Not long after Bell reached XUL’s campus, local and regional law enforcement partners, the Louisiana State Police and FBI agents arrived. Near 5am, the administrative team made the decision to move all courses online, something the university has experience with because of COVID, said Bell.
“We decided not to cancel classes because it was our perspective that if we cancelled classes completely, we would certainly be letting whoever the bad actors were win in the disruption of the education of our students whom we hold so dearly.”
The police gave XUL the all-clear around 11am and, though the school remained tense and the administration monitored the students’ mental health, in-person classes resumed that afternoon.
A similar scenario unfolded at the other 12 HBCUs that received bomb threats that day, the first day of Black History Month.
Tony Allen, president of Delaware State University (DSU), became aware of the one to his university at 5.15am. The bomb threat was “a clear effort to confuse, intimidate and bully our campus community,” he told DSU faculty, staff and students in an open letter.
“The impetus for such a threat cannot be ascribed to anything other than the most primitive form of racism, a form which is neither new nor unique in this country.”
Central to DSU communication with its students is the university’s Student Government Association, the president of which, Semaj Hazzard, was woken at around 5.30am with news of the threat. In the subsequent minutes, he received a number of messages telling him that other HBCUs around the country had received similar threats. After speaking with members of the association’s board, he sent out a message to all students to lock their doors, stay inside and shelter in place.
DSU received the “all clear” at around noon, after the various police forces had searched the campus with sniffer dogs. “There was no real threat,” Allen told University World News. “All of our folks were safe. And our students by the afternoon were able to move around a bit more regularly. We didn’t, however, let faculty and staff come on to campus until the next day.”
Hazzard, a 21-year-old senior majoring in liberal studies, described those first tension-filled minutes two ways. On the one hand, he was calm because he had a job to do – one that he, the other members of the student association’s board as well as the university’s students and staff had trained for during “active shooter” drills.
At the same time, he felt that he was in something like a time warp. “I think it put me back 40 years” – to 1985, when the Philadelphia police department bombed a house containing members of the African-American religious and environmental movement MOVE, stories about which his parents (the family is from Philadelphia) had shared with him.
The threat, the fear of being blown up for no reason other than because he and his classmates were black, also made Hazzard feel as though nothing had changed since the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) terrorised the Freedmen, as the former slaves were called.
A decentralised system
The network of HBCUs mirrors the decentralised nature of American higher education. Some, like Spelman College (which received a bomb threat on 8 February) and Morehouse College (Martin Luther King’s alma mater), both of which are in Atlanta, Georgia, are private liberal arts colleges. Others, including Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, are private universities founded by Evangelical Protestants in 1866 and 1870, respectively.
Howard University in Washington, of which US Vice-President Kamala Harris is an alumna, is a private university founded in 1867. Hinds Community College and Alabama’s Gadsden State Community College, founded in 1925, are among the seven public historically black community colleges.
Founded in 1837, two years after Oberlin College in Ohio became the first college in the country to admit African Americans, the Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania) in Philadelphia was the first of the institutions to be recognised in 1965 by the Higher Education Act as an HBCU.
According to Jelani M Favors, the Henry E Frye distinguished professor in the department of history at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (an HBCU founded in 1891), since their very beginning, HBCUs have done more than simply train black students to be teachers, lawyers, doctors or other professionals; HBCUs provided a counter-narrative to one that supported slavery and, after emancipation, provided a space for African Americans to train their leaders, said Favors, author of Shelter in a Time of Storm: How black colleges fostered generations of leadership and activism (2020).
“The first HBCUs were founded during the antebellum [pre-Civil War period] when concepts of white supremacy were becoming more firmly entrenched. Increasingly, people were viewing minstrel shows and embracing the idea that black people were inherently inferior and worthy of enslavement,” Favors told University World News.
In addition to teaching a curriculum needed to produce professionals, these HBCUs and the ones founded after the Civil War taught a “second curriculum, an unspoken curriculum, which emphasises ideas of race consciousness [and] cultural nationalism”, Favors stressed. That equipped African Americans to deconstruct ideas of whiteness and confront white violence.
Among the nostrums of what can be called “racial thinking” was, for example, the anthropological studies of George Gliddon and Josiah C Nott, whom Favors referenced without naming them in an essay provided to University World News. It was not uncommon in the white academy for scholars to teach “that intelligence was correlated to skull shapes and sizes”. In their works, for example, Gliddon and Nott ranked the race they called “the Negro” between whites and chimpanzees.
“HBCUs equipped their students with the intellectual skills and tools to take on all of these notorious and toxic ideas,” Favors said.
A history of threat
Though the number of bomb threats against the HBCUs – more than three dozen since the beginning of January – is unusually high, they fit into the history of whites’ concerted efforts to prevent slaves from learning to read, and resistance to institutions of black education. Amid the terrorism that was American chattel slavery, in 1740, South Carolina’s colonial legislature criminalised the teaching of slaves to read.
In 1831, all but three slave states had made teaching slaves to read a crime, with a fine of US$10 (US$3,200 today). Alabama’s Slave Code of 1833 went further: “Any person who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read or write, shall upon conviction thereof by indictment, be fined in a sum of not less than two hundred fifty dollars, nor more than five hundred dollars [US$16,000 in today’s money].”
That same year, an article published in Harper’s Weekly made clear why: “[T]he alphabet is an abolitionist. If you would keep a people enslaved, refuse to teach them to read.” In several states, the price a slave paid for being caught reading was a savage whipping or, worse, torture. Some were simply murdered.
Both America’s official white power structure and vigilantes have been willing to use violence against black institutions of higher learning. The first such institution in a slave state, Berea College in Kentucky (founded in 1855), was quickly burned to the ground by white supremacists. They did the same to the school’s second building. John Fee, the preacher who spearheaded the drive to build the school, was run out of the third town he surveyed for the school.
Nor was the violence against colleges and universities confined to below the Mason-Dixon Line. In 1827, the plan for Oneida Institute in Central New York State to admit black students was enough to prompt 300 men aided by 100 oxen to destroy the school founded by evangelical Christians.
On 21 April 1865, 12 days after General Robert E Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia and six days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, an arsonist burned down Wilberforce University in Ohio, named for William Wilberforce who led the anti-slavery crusade in the British Parliament.
In Atlanta in 1906 a white mob reached the gates of Atlanta University, now Clark Atlanta University. Among the students and faculty standing on the other side of the gates ready to defend their university was the famous sociologist WEB Du Bois, a graduate of Fisk University, an HBCU in Nashville, Tennessee, and the University of Berlin and the first black to earn a PhD at Harvard University.
According to Favors, Du Bois, who had armed himself, said: “We will be ready to defend this sacred space, this sacred institution.”
Four years later, at Delaware State University (DSU), two of the cows on the university’s farm were poisoned with arsenic.
Even five years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, violence stalked the HBCUs and was sometimes meted out by state actors.
In February 1968, three black students were killed and 28 other students were wounded on the campus of South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, when highway patrolmen opened fire on 200 unarmed black student protesters (one of the most violent but least known events in the Civil Rights Movement).
In May of 1969, freshman Willie Grimes was shot and killed on the campus of North Carolina A&T State University by either local (Greensboro, North Carolina) police or a National Guardsman.
Just a few days after the infamous Kent State killings in which the National Guard shot and killed four students, at Jackson State College (now University), local police and Mississippi Highway Patrol shot dead two students and injured 12.
In the 1960s, state legislators in Mississippi referred to Tougaloo College, founded in 1869, as “the cancer college” – as in a “cancer in the community” – because, said Favors, they saw it “as a threat to the longevity and sustainability of whiteness itself”.
Yet, said Favors, “the real threat to HBCUs was not necessarily in the form of racial violence targeted against them. Rather, the real threat was their deliberate underfunding over the decades. White Southern legislators were determined to make sure that the HBCUs never received their fair share of state supported tax generated funds.”
For much of American history, Delaware was particularly parsimonious when it came to education and even more so in respect of black education. In 1898, seven years after the school was founded as Delaware College for Colored Students (and renamed in 1893 as State College for Colored Students so as to avoid confusion with Delaware College, which enrolled white students), it received US$4,800, while Delaware College received US$19,200.
In 1911 the white university received US$328,000 and the State College for Colored Students just US$68,000, says Carlos Holmes, DSU’s director of news services and campus historian.
Beginning in 1950, Holmes told University World News, Delaware invested heavily in education and “literally transformed the campus”. Such has not been the case across the country.
According to a report from the Brookings Institution published last year, a Republican controlled committee of the state legislature found that over the past five decades, Tennessee has short-changed Tennessee State University by approximately half a billion dollars, prompting Republican co-chair of the committee, Richard Briggs, to say: “I don’t care if that’s 100% accurate, that’s [investing US$500 million] just not going to happen.”
Generations of underfunding have left many HBCUs with an outdated physical plant, poorly equipped laboratories, as well as over-burdened staff. And yet, said Adam Harris, author of The State Must Provide: Why America’s colleges have always been unequal – and how to set them right, HBCUs enrol only 3% to 4% of not-for-profit black students, but “they educate something like 50% of black lawyers and doctors and 80% of black judges”.
Connecting the dots
The FBI has said little about its investigation into the bomb threats beyond announcing that six “tech savvy” juveniles have been identified as “persons of interest”. However, on 2 February, MSNBC News quoted an unnamed law enforcement official willing to go further and say that the “minors appeared to be using sophisticated methods to disguise the source of the threats, which seem to have a racial motivation”.
None of the DSU scholars, university administrators or Hazzard had trouble connecting the dots.
“I’m not usually the guy that pulls out the race card right away,” said Hazzard, “But, why is the University of Delaware not getting threatened? Or Virginia Commonwealth University? What do all the schools that have been threatened have in common?” he asked rhetorically before answering: “All are historically black colleges and universities with 90% black kids on their campuses.”
According to Adam Harris: “For a long time HBCUs were viewed as a sort of parochial offshoot of higher education rather than an integral part of it.” This changed about 18 months ago when US presidential candidate Joe Biden named then senator Kamala Harris to be his running mate.
As numerous articles noted, Kamala Harris, who was a good enough student to go to an Ivy League school, chose instead to go to Howard University for her bachelor degree because she wanted to immerse herself in black culture after spending her early teens living in Montreal with her mother who was a researcher at McGill University.
Before Biden’s election, and after, the US Department of Education dispersed historic amounts of money to HBCUs. As was widely reported, in Biden’s first year, US$3.7 billion was directed to HBCUs.
Hundreds of articles and news reports publicised the fact that more than 20 institutions, including Howard, Wilberforce and North Carolina A&T State University, used the funds to pay down the student debts of tens of thousands of students.
According to the United Negro College Fund, more than 70% of HBCU students are eligible for Federal Pell Grants, given to students whose annual family income is below US$50,000.
Further, last July, the media was filled with stories about (Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife) MacKenzie Scott’s donation of US$560 million to HBCUs, six million of which went to Tougaloo College. She donated US$20 million to DSU. “In many cases, these donations are the largest they’ve ever received in their history,” said Adam Harris.
He paused for a moment and then added: “And so, while that is happening, you’ve seen these sorts of threats to these institutions. I don’t think it is a coincidence that there are threats to these highly visible spaces [HBCUs] where folks are engaging with each other, a space that is nurturing for black students.”
Harris knew I would recognise his use of ‘folks’ from the title of Du Bois’ seminal work The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, in which the anthropologist first described the “double consciousness” of black Americans, who must always be conscious not only of how they see themselves, but also of how the dominant white supremacist culture sees them.
Additionally, as reported by University World News on 3 December 2021, a study by the United Negro College Fund, which was widely covered by American media, showed that HBCUs are succeeding in propelling a disproportionate number of their students into the middle and professional classes.
According to XUL Vice-President Bell, HBCUs have a tremendous success ratio in producing a greater number of black (and other minority and socio-economically disadvantaged) students. “When students graduate, they move to the top two quintiles, the top two-fifths, of income. So, we are doing massive work on the economy of individuals which ripples to their families and communities.”
In the beat of his peers, Hazzard said: “We’re definitely bigger targets than we were three years ago because we’re out here making moves. We’re out here snapping rocker, doing what we’re doing. We’re basically being great Americans and doing things for society. And what they’re [those making bomb threats] are interested in is that we have pigment in our skin.”
Measuring the fallout
None of the people interviewed for this article believed that the bomb threats would have the intended effect of disrupting the HBCUs longer than it took for them to receive the “all clear” from police.
While she had no precise data about the psychological impact of the bomb threats, Bell said that from the social media XUL was monitoring, she knew that the students were tense and expressing concern to each other. In response, XUL is providing emotional support to students, staff and faculty.
Hazzard described the stress that comes from his responsibility to 2,000 students as being close to overwhelming. The students are “relying on my leadership. I like to compare myself to the captain on the Titanic. If my ship’s going down, I’m going down with it.” Of the strain on his classmates, he said simply: “No one came here to be blown up.”
Adam Harris too has turned to social media platforms like Twitter and found that students are anxious. “When you receive those threats,” he said, “you can’t immediately jump to the conclusion that it is a false flag [operation]. You have to take it seriously. And so, for students, when they are repeatedly being subjected to threats, it is very stressful. Howard has received three threats this year, and they took a mental health day last Friday because it’s been a really trying week for them.”
Favors’ tone was almost elegiac when he spoke of the weight of both the bomb threats and the racist structures of America that encourage such threats.
“You know, they’re 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids. They want to be kids. For many it’s their first time away from home and so they want to explore that space. They don’t come to these institutions thinking they are going to be crusaders for freedom.”
The positions of each of the administrators, as well as Hazzard, Favors and Harris, are reflected in the words Allen wrote in his open letter to DSU faculty, staff and students: “We shall not be moved from standing sentry beside the open door, nor shall we be confused, intimidated or bullied into believing anything other than what we are – Americans, learners, teachers, builders –useful and honorable people ready to soar.”
The first four words of this sentence belong, as the letter’s intended readers would know, to one of the most powerful of the songs of the Civil Rights Movement: “We Shall Not be Moved.”
Favors, Harris and Bell used the expression “been through the fires” to describe the generations who built the HBCUs and went on to lead the fight for civil rights, including Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Thurgood Marshall (the lawyer who won Brown vs Board of Education in which the Supreme Court of the United States struck down legal segregation and was later the first black justice in America’s highest court), and lesser known people like activist Ella Baker and Lucy Diggs Slowe, who became the first female dean of women at Howard in 1922.
“That’s part of the weight we’ve had to put on their shoulders; that’s the weight they are going to have to assume now,” as they graduate and go out into the world,” said Favors. “It’s unfair that many youths have been asked to take up the challenge, to follow the freedom fights that have propelled us. But it’s a weight that many people have assumed in the past and hopefully they’ll continue bearing it moving forward.”
Cry, the beloved country
By birth I am an American. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York and moved to Canada in 1980. My parents brought me and my brother to a number of marches for civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s.
My doctoral dissertation was on America’s first important black novelist: Charles W Chesnutt, who was active as a writer between 1885 and 1905: ‘Their Positions Must Be Mined’: Charles W Chesnutt’s assault on America’s racial thinking. So, I knew most of the history Allen, Bell, Harris and Favors laid out for me. And I’ve read the doleful words of runaway slaves and, later, blacks terrorised by the KKK and state and federal forces.
Accordingly, I thought myself prepared for Hazzard’s answer to the question, “What do the bomb threats tell you about the America you are going to inherit when you graduate?”
“The America we’re getting ready to inherit is still stuck in 1865. I feel we are not making any progress. Oh, yes, we can vote and we can do different things. But is my life as a black male cherished? Is my life protected? There’s a young black male,” he said as a rhetorical gesture, “Is his life valued?”
As I related the young man’s words to my wife, my voice broke, and a moment later the title of Alan Paton’s book about apartheid South Africa came to mind: Cry, the Beloved Country.