Since the 1930s, the women of Bennett College, one of the nation’s two historically Black colleges for women, have dressed in white and sung their “Preference Song” over an annual breakfast. They wave white linen napkins in the air, cheering “dear old Bennett College,” and welcome incoming freshmen.
The tradition, near and dear to the Belles of Bennett College, may soon be lost, along with the school itself.
In December, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges voted to eliminate Bennett’s accreditation because of the school’s bleak financial report. Without it, the small, North Carolina-based private school is ineligible for federal funding, a likely death knell.
Bennett, founded in 1873, is fighting the decision in court. If it loses, it will become the latest in a long line of historically Black colleges and universities to succumb to time and financial woes.
For nearly 200 years, since the opening of Pennsylvania’s Cheyney University in 1837, HBCUs have educated thousands of students, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Justice Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison, Rep. Elijah Cummings and Sen. Kamala Harris.
But from a high of 120 such schools to about 101 in 2019, many have faced an uncertain future. In the last 20 years, six have closed, and several others remain open in name only after losing accreditation.
Cheyney University, the nation’s oldest HBCU, is also at risk of losing its accreditation. Years of unbalanced budgets and declining enrollment have led the school, which is a part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, to cut majors and programs.
Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the regional accrediting body, has already granted Cheyney a two-year extension to balance its budget and the university has been on probation since 2015. Cheyney must meet a handful of obligations in the coming months to maintain its accreditation. Among those was a June 30 deadline to balance its budget, which school administrators said they have done. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education will evaluate the school and determine the status of its accreditation in November.
According to students, the loss of just one historically Black university — at one point the only option for Black students seeking a college degree in America — is bound to reverberate for generations. We spoke to three Black HBCU graduates whose schools are now closed about what the loss of these institutions means to them.
Concordia College, Selma, Alabama (1922-2018)
Marla Moore, 31, graduated from Concordia on April 28, 2018, with more than 150 other students. She transferred there in 2014 from Alabama’s Wallace Community College.
Moore said she had a hard time adjusting. The school lacked basic resources such as a student center and the smart boards that were available at Wallace, and the buildings were old, as were the classrooms and desks, she said.
“The school was a culture shock for me. Even though I am African American, I was used to seeing different people,” Moore said. She attended Concordia for one semester and withdrew.
But after an unsuccessful move to Georgia, Moore decided to return a year later to complete her degree. It was the sense of community at the school that brought her back. “It was like a family, people actually cared and coached me through things,” she said. “When I was tired, I could go to my teachers, my advisers, unlike at community college. The people wanted you to be there.”
When Moore learned the school would close, she said she was devastated. “I was really concerned about the staff and teachers looking for other jobs — this was their livelihood. Some had to move out West, some are still out of work. That is a form of trauma,” she said.
Moore now works at AmeriCorps, a nonprofit social justice organization, as a facilitator focused on King’s strategies of nonviolence. She said she worries about the fate of the nation’s remaining HBCUs.
“African-American community culture has already been whitewashed, so to not have anything at all that’s not yours, I don’t want to think about it,” she said. “It’s like a part of your heritage is taken away, like during slavery.”
Morristown College, Morristown, Tennessee (1881-1994)
Robert Johnson, 53, graduated from Morristown College in 1988, with a class size close to 100.
Johnson, a Philadelphia native, said that attending Morristown College was his first time away from home, but that the school, which had a predominantly Black staff and a majority of students from out of state, had a tight-knit community.
“It gave a feeling of being home and also growing up,” he said. “It’s a place where I grew so much, more than I did anywhere else. I grew as a person, grew spiritually because Morristown had a rich spiritual life.”
The school merged in 1989 with Knoxville College, another HBCU in Tennessee, but closed in 1994. Johnson said the quality of the education he received at Morristown was high, and that despite the school’s financial troubles, it was a place where students could matriculate to a larger university.
“We understood that there had to be an air of excellence: This was where we were to go to the next phase of the journey. We couldn’t be as good as, we had to be better than,” he said.
After receiving an associate degree from Morristown, Johnson attended Albright College in Pennsylvania, graduating with a bachelor of arts, and then the United Theological Seminary in Ohio, where he received a master’s of divinity. He is now the senior pastor at the historical Tindley Temple United Methodist Church in Philadelphia.
“HBCUs need investments from our own community. Our millionaires and philanthropists and churches should take the time to invest in HBCUs,” he said. “They are struggling because there has always been a shoestring mentality.”
In May, billionaire investor Robert F. Smith pledged to pay the collective student debt of the entire 2019 Morehouse College graduating class.
“HBCUs are definitely needed on two levels,” Johnson said. “One, there is something about HBCUs that lends itself to a pride for community; it calls us into a culture of oneness. There is a need for them to be nurtured and not to be swallowed up at traditional universities.
“Second, they are needed because we are rapidly losing our history and sense of belonging. They are needed now more than ever due to violence and other things going on in the community.”
Saint Paul’s College, Lawrenceville, Virginia (1888-2013)
Sonya Perdue Bolton, 55, graduated from Saint Paul’s College in 2013. It was the school’s last graduating class. Bolton initially attended Saint Paul’s in 1983, and made the dean’s list in her first semester.
“Saint Paul’s was large enough to be a college, but small enough to be a family,” Bolton said. “I am friends today with people from Saint Paul’s, I am still in touch with my first roommate.”
In Bolton’s sophomore year, her mother passed away. “The college was very supportive, they took two van loads of people from college to my hometown for mom’s funeral. Some people drove, including a couple of deans,” she said.
Bolton returned for her junior year, but withdrew and got married.
After raising her family, she learned about the school’s accelerated adult completion program, which helps working adults gain a degree through a schedule of night classes and abridged courses. Bolton decided to finish her degree.
“I kept saying, ‘I am going back to school.’ I wanted to go back to Saint Paul’s, I wanted my degree to be from Saint Paul’s,” she said.
Twenty-six years after first enrolling, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Bolton, who now works as a deputy for the Portsmouth City Treasurer’s Office in Virginia, said she was “absolutely heartbroken and saddened about the closure of the school.”
Tribune staff writer Michael D’Onofrio contributed to this report.