“Where all the Black people at?” That was the question a 19-year-old Antonio Bolden asked when he first enrolled at Bluefield State College. Bolden, who had started college right after high school, had assumed, just like most people would at the time, that the student body of a Historically Black College and University like Bluefield would mainly consist of African- American students.
However, African Americans comprised a minority of the student population. In fact, in an NPR report in 2014, Bluefield State College’s student body was 90 percent White, even though to date it receives the federal funding that comes with its position as a historically Black institution. So how did a college that was founded and run by Black people to serve Black students become White?
Located in Bluefield, West Virginia, the school, which is part of West Virginia’s public education system, was founded in 1895 as Bluefield Colored Institute to educate the children of Black coal miners in segregated West Virginia. Scores of Black people who had migrated to West Virginia to work as coal miners sent their children to Bluefield, eventually leading to the creation of a Black middle class in the region. Then came the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 declaring segregation illegal. That ruling came some years after Bluefield earned full accreditation, changing the face of education in America.
HBCUs like Bluefield were providing education to Black students at a time other state universities barred them. But now they had to compete with largely White schools that were better-funded for brilliant Black students. In other words, Black students now had a lot of options to choose from for their schooling. The situation was no different at Bluefield. With the advent of new technology, many Black families shunned the mining jobs and moved to the North to work in the factories.
But it was during this same period that White veterans began returning to West Virginia from the Korean War. “And with the government footing their tuition costs through the G.I. Bill, the state’s inexpensive Black schools — the other was West Virginia State University — started looking more and more attractive to White students,” NPR reported.
Thus, by the mid-1960s, Bluefield was only about half-Black. And then to make matters worse, it chose a White man to be its president. Wendell G. Hardway became the school’s first White president in 1966. By 1967, the school’s faculty, which had been all-Black, had become only 30 percent Black. This angered many students and the Black alumni who argued that Hardway was discriminating against Black faculty and students.
That same year, Black students held a demonstration during halftime at homecoming that turned violent. Some students were suspended as a result. Things got worse on campus the following year when civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. That year, administrators said they started receiving death threats while students outlined a list of demands they tried to present to Hardway but failed. Then by the end of November 1968, Hardway closed dorms on campus following a bombing at the school’s gymnasium. No one was injured in the bombing that was seen to have been the work of students living in the dorms.
With the dorms closed, Black students who did not live nearby no longer had places to live in. And as Black families left the region in their numbers, Bluefield would suddenly move from an all-Black college to “a mostly white commuter school,” though its alumni association remains mostly Black.
Currently, historically Black schools across the country including Morgan State University are enrolling more diverse student bodies as African-American enrollment alone cannot sustain them, especially when traditionally White institutions are taking various steps to attract minorities. Still, these schools remain HBCUs and receive federal funding as per federal law, an institution must have served a predominantly Black student population before 1964 to qualify as an HBCU.
In 2017, about 25 percent of students enrolled at historically Black institutions were not African American. “HBCUs wisely are opening themselves up to students beyond the black community in order to remain sustainable,” Anthony Bradley, a professor who studies HBCUs, explained. “The ones who don’t do that are probably going to close.”
“Is it going to change on-campus culture? Yes. Will it change some of their traditions? Yes. Will things be lost? Absolutely. But if they are going to survive, given the competition for African American students, they don’t have a choice to have a moral debate about whether this change is good or bad.”