Tune in to the conversation around historically black colleges and universities and it’s easy to think the institutions are in a state of perpetual existential crisis. NPR’s Code Switch reporter Gene Demby’s deep dive into one West Virginia HBCU doesn’t do much to allay that perception, but he does offer a compelling, multilayered snapshot of an institution which has adapted to the changing times by enrolling more whites. So many that today, the student body of Bluefield State College, originally Bluefield Colored Institute when it was founded in 1895, is 90 percent white. It didn’t come about by accident. Structural forces—namely Brown v. Board of Education and the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement, along with key decisions by white administrators—were instrumental in the shift.
Demby’s descriptions of life at Bluefield State College today are fascinating, if you’ve an attachment to the original mission and historical legacy of HBCUs. From: “The Whitest Historically Black College in America”:
Most of the current students we spoke to knew about the school’s status as a historically black college, but treated it like a bit of trivia. The players on the women’s basketball team, who were planting seeds for a homecoming event, joked casually about there not being step shows or marching bands or black fraternities and sororities.
If there was much anxiety about race and history among Bluefield State’s current students, though, it was pretty hard to tell. At the homecoming dance the night before the Founder’s Day luncheon, black students and white students were all together doing the “Cha Cha Slide” and the “Cupid Shuffle.” The hundred or so folks getting it in on the dance floor looked to be traditionally college-aged kids. And these kids were, essentially, the student life of the campus. The all-white homecoming court did the “Wobble” next to a clique of black women’s basketball players, who somehow managed to be even taller in heels. Jerry Perdue, a gregarious white guy and the college’s student government president, gushed over last year’s Miss Bluefield State, Danielle Haynes, a black science and pharmaceutical major who had since graduated. Her mother had been Miss Bluefield State back in the day, too.
“I get it, we love the history here and it’s so amazing to hear about it,” Haynes told us later. “But my generation — we’re not so much hardened by the fact that we don’t look like an HBCU. We just love our school for what it is.”
Read the story here.