OPINION: Is Utica becoming another Harris Junior College?

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Thomas Jefferson Harris Junior College (Harris Junior College) was created in 1937 as an institution to serve Black students who were enrolled in the Meridian Public School system. It remained a part of the Meridian Public School system and served that purpose for thirty-three years, until it was merged into Meridian Junior College. 

Harris Junior College’s demise came in 1970 as a result of a federal court order desegregating Meridian’s public schools. Judge Harold Cox had ordered the elementary and secondary schools desegregated three years earlier, in 1967.

When one thinks about the closure of Harris Junior College, at least two key factors should be kept in mind. One is that despite Judge John Pratt’s instruction in the case of Adam vs. Richardson that Black people and Black institutions should not be made to bear the burden of desegregation efforts, Black institutions like Harris Junior College continued to suffer that fate. The other is that the board of trustees of Meridian Junior College was also the board for Harris Junior College, meaning that Harris’ fate was in the hands of the very people who could be considered the adversaries. 

These same two factors – Blacks bearing the burden and victimized institutions being subject to the adversary – played a role in the decline of Utica Junior College. To some extent, this predicament gave rise to the question, “is Utica becoming another Harris Junior College? 

Utica Junior College had been established in 1909 by Professor William Holtzclaw. Since that time, it had educated thousands of students. Then, in the fall of 1983, many students, employees, and alumni of Utica were alarmed to learn that in reaction to the litigation of the case of Ayers vs. Waller, Utica Junior College faced the possibility of being closed. The board of trustees’ implementation plan for a so-called merger of Utica Junior College and Hinds Junior College indicated that the board would “negotiate for alternative uses for the present Utica site.” It further indicated that the board would “develop a plan for phasing out the Utica site in Copiah County when there is no further need for that location.” The judge in the case remarked that “The board seems to be saying … in the end Utica will be sold off and that the expansions will be at other locations, whether at Raymond or at Jackson or Vicksburg or Rankin County.”

This turn of events was such a shock because Utica Junior College and Coahoma Junior College had been included in the Ayers lawsuit in order to help illustrate the plaintiff’s argument that higher education in Mississippi was not just a dual system based upon race, but that the senior colleges as well as the junior colleges were developed and funded based upon racial discrimination. Rather than being addressed in such a manner as to remove the racially disparate funding, however, the board of trustees that oversaw Hinds and Utica decided to merge Utica out of existence. That was the discussion in the early 1980s.

What has taken place in the meantime is that a merger did take place. Publicly, it presented a Hinds Community College system, with there being a Raymond Campus, a Utica Campus, a Jackson center, a Rankin County center, and a Vicksburg center. It recognized a president of the system, who was positioned on the Raymond Campus, a vice president positioned on the Utica Campus, and directors at each of the three centers.

That course of action, rather than immediately closing Utica, as had been noted in the board’s implementation plan, was apparently taken because of the political climate at the time. On the one hand, many Utica supporters and alumni were upset over its probable closure. They were willing to finance an all-out legal and political battle to save the institution. On the other hand, the board of trustees, which had been named as defendants in the Ayers lawsuit, likely did not want to appear so viciously racist as to completely eliminate the one historically Black entity that was a part of the system.

Consequently, from the time of the merger in 1984 to 2023, things have slowly, but significantly, evolved regarding the Utica Campus. Hinds Agricultural High School has been closed. There is no longer a vice president for the Utica Campus. Program offerings on the Utica Campus have been diminished. There is a new emphasis on Hinds being “one school,” which seems to imply that Utica is no longer recognized as a historically Black institution, thereby losing much of its significance. If that trend continues and/or gets stronger, we will be moving more toward Utica becoming another Harris Junior College. It will stir the institution more toward what appeared to have been the board’s intent in 1983-84. 

If that is to be averted, more needs to be done in terms of publicizing the status and predicament of the college, in terms of securing programs and curricula for the expansion and preservation of the campus, in terms of political protection for the college, in terms of re-visiting the legal decisions that were made in the fateful years between 1983 and 2000, and in terms of generating funds to support such initiatives. 

The ultimate question thus becomes: Have concerned citizens learned enough and become determined enough to make a difference? Admittedly, the condition appears negative at the present. However, it is still possible to turn events in such a way that the answer to the question, “is Utica becoming another Harris Junior College”, can be answered with a firm “no” by an informed and aroused community.

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OPINION: Is Utica becoming another Harris Junior College?

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
June 12, 2023