OPINION: Mississippi’s historically Black colleges still need your help

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As slavery was outlawed in America, gaining a formal education became a matter of great importance to many Black citizens. As a result, within one generation more than one hundred Black colleges were established, most of them privately funded. Included in that number were almost 20 in Mississippi.

Many citizens are aware that Rust College, established in 1866; Tougaloo College, established in 1869; Alcorn State University, established in 1871; and Jackson State University established in 1877, have weathered the storms of time. Many are aware that Mississippi Valley State University, established in 1950, has weathered even more storms than the other four. Many citizens are also aware that they are all still facing various threats today.

What many citizens are not aware of, however, is that in Mississippi between the mid-1860s and today, eight Black colleges have been closed outright – Campbell College, Harris Junior College, Mary Holmes College, Natchez Junior College, Mississippi Industrial College, Okolona College, Prentiss Institute, and Saints Industrial Junior College. During that same stretch of time, two Black colleges have seen their status changed. Piney Woods School during the 1950s and 60s became a junior college but is now back to being just a secondary school. The Utica Junior College lost its status through a court decision and is now just the Utica Campus of Hinds Community College.

In case someone is counting, he/she can see that ten Black Mississippi colleges have bitten the dust; only six are left standing. The five senior colleges mentioned were joined by Coahoma Community College in 1949. It is no consolation that, of the ten that bit the dust, most were junior colleges. It is no consolation that, of those that bit the dust, only Harris Junior College and Utica Junior College were public institutions. The reality is that, overall, the Black community lost many institutions that had contributed and could today be contributing to the education of Black students, greatly uplifting the Black community. Many of these closed institutions have listed some of their noted alumni on their web pages.

In order to sound the alarm regarding the assistance needed by Mississippi’s historically Black colleges, one is now confined to calling the roll of the Black colleges that have closed over the years. He/she can also point to the predicaments of the six existing Black colleges.

Early in this year, four of the six institutions were without permanent presidents – Alcorn State University, Jackson State University, Rust College, and Tougaloo College. In each case, the institution stood to lose momentum as its continuity was disrupted. Although Jackson State University has had a president named by the college board, there has been no word on a search for Alcorn. The same holds true for Rust and Tougaloo. All three have interim presidents, which means they are on suspended animation.

In the cases of the Black public universities, there are a million reasons why the college board has on the one hand been negligent in how it has funded and approved curriculum. Meanwhile, the same board has seldom if ever chosen and appointed the best candidates for the three institutions. Both situations call upon Black citizens to confront the boards on behalf of Alcorn, Jackson State, and Valley. If necessary, their supporters must be ready, willing, and able to approach the state legislature, the courts, and the federal government to affect positive changes in terms of the board’s composition and operation.

In the case of the private colleges, supporters must be ready, willing, and able to approach their respective boards and major financial backers regarding who gets selected as presidents and how those executives operate. Like the public colleges, they are valuable community resources, not private businesses to be operated solely as the executives and boards desire.

This brings us back to the reasons why Black colleges were established, going back as far as the 1860s. Black colleges have in the past and continue today to develop competent and committed Black leaders – political, educational, business, medical, and religious leaders. Despite the small percentage of Black people who now graduate from Black colleges, leaders from Tougaloo, Howard, Tennessee State, Jackson State, Southern University, Spelman, Tuskegee, Texas Southern, Florida A&M, and the like, stand-out. Because of their nature and commitment, they are still needed.

Secondly, because of their empathy, expertise, and understanding, Black colleges are still in the best position to provide opportunities for many gifted, but often first generation or otherwise deprived, Black students. Mississippi Valley State University, the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, Prairie View, Rust College, Dillard, Shaw, Bennett College, and others, continue to open their doors and lovingly guide thousands of Black students to rewarding careers.

Finally, as right-wing proponents ramp up their wars on critical race theory, “wokeism” and just Black history and culture in general, it will be the historically Black colleges that will literally keep the light burning as W.E.B. DuBois and others has recommended. 

Black colleges are the front-line. They still need us in order to remain alive and vibrant. They need us to help them advance us. 

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OPINION: Mississippi’s historically Black colleges still need your help

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
December 18, 2023