Code Switch
2:23 pm
Tue October 22, 2013

Ask Me Anything: On Bluefield State, America's Whitest Black College

Originally published on Tue October 22, 2013 3:56 pm

On Monday, the folks over at Reddit were kind enough to have my colleague Shereen Marisol Meraji and me on to do an Ask Me Anything on our recent reporting on Bluefield State College in West Virginia. Bluefield State is a historically black college, but today it's nearly 90 percent white.

Shereen and I took turns answering Redditors' questions. Here's a roundup of some of the best:

User fa53: Was there a tipping point in time where the demographics shifted, or did it happen gradually?

Gene: It was a little bit of both, actually. The college was created in the late 1890s for the children of black folks who came to the region to work the mines; those young people weren't allowed to attend the segregated schools in the area. There wasn't a single white student until the 1950s, when white folks coming back from Korea with G.I. Bill money started enrolling. At first it was a trickle, but by the late 1960s, the school was about half black and half white.

From 1966 to 1968, racial tensions at Bluefield State were mounting. In 1966, the state appointed Wendell Hardway to run the college — the first white president the institution had ever had. He promptly proceeded to hire 24 new instructors, all of whom were white. And he was the first Bluefield State president who didn't live in Hatter Hall, the house in the center of campus named after the college's black founder. This didn't sit well with a lot of the black students and alumni, who thought the state was trying to change the school into something unrecognizable.

Then, in 1968, some radical black students bombed the gym. Hardway swiftly responded by shutting down the dorms. He said the bombing had been stoked by troublemaker students from up North. But the dorms were almost all black — white people in the town wouldn't rent to black kids — which meant that black kids suddenly had no place to stay.

The school essentially became a commuter school, and since West Virginia is one of the whitest states in the country (94 percent white), the campus started to look more and more like the state more broadly.

SES606: Is the current administration involved in preserving Bluefield's history?

Shereen: The president of the school, Marsha Krotseng, mentioned in our interview that she wanted to work more closely with the alumni association to help preserve Bluefield's history. There was a founder's day event during homecoming week that very few current students or faculty came to and the black alumni who were there were upset that the faculty and students present didn't, for example, know the words to the school song. The alumni we spoke with were cautiously optimistic about Krotseng's interest in forming a stronger bond with the association in order to help preserve the history.

dupontcircle: What sort of federal benefits do they receive in terms of funding, grants, etc., as an HBCU?

Gene: Bluefield State's total budget is around $20 million About a 10th of that budget comes from its designation as an HBCU.

The federal government designates schools as HBCUs if they were created with the primary purpose of educating black students before 1964. And once you've been grandfathered in, you have that status forever (or until they change the rules). That's why a school like Bluefield State, which is 90 percent white, maintains its HBCU designation, while a school like Chicago State University, which after 1964 became overwhelmingly black, isn't eligible for the federal support that goes to HBCUs.

Rance_Geodes: Do the 90% try to act like the 10% to fit in and seem cool?

Shereen: HA! No clue, BUT: at the very sparsely attended Homecoming dance both the 90% and the 10% were doing the Cupid Shuffle and the Cha Cha Slide, together, on the dance floor. And I observed bad and good dancing in each group. How's that for diplomacy?

hadapurpura: What's the position of the non-white 10% regarding the switch in statistics? Are they o.k. with it, do they feel the college should turn back into a black college again?

Shereen: The black students we interviewed didn't seem all that concerned with the campus' demographics. They seemed genuinely interested in the history and wished that there were more black fraternities and sororities and more activities on campus, but few mentioned actively trying to bring more black students or black faculty onto campus. The alumni association, however, is all black and they have been pushing to bring back on-campus housing to help recruit out-of-state black students. West Virginia is 94% White, 3% Black.

You can read our report on Bluefield State here, and you can listen to Shereen's Morning Edition story on the college here.

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