As a graduate of both Tougaloo College and Jackson State University, the recent bomb threats to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are personal to me. In January and February 2022, over 50 HBCUs received bomb threats; several of those threats were received on the first day of Black History Month. The continuous attacks on institutions of higher learning, places of worship, and individual attacks are a direct threat to our everyday existence.
According to Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the first HBCU, The Africa Institute (known today as Cheyney University), was founded in 1837 in Pennsylvania. The mission of The Africa Institute was to provide free Blacks with skills for gainful employment. Starting in the early 1860s (i.e., Tougaloo College - 1869; Jackson State University - 1877), when many HBCUs were founded, the overall mission switched to providing Black Americans with access to higher education. For the past 180 years, these institutions have provided education to millions of Black Americans including: Vice President Kamala Harris (Howard University - Washington, D.C.); Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse College - Atlanta, GA); Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson (Tougaloo College - Tougaloo, MS, Jackson State University - Jackson, MS); and NAACP President Derrick Johnson (Tougaloo College - Tougaloo, MS).
HBCUs are very special places for Black students. In addition to providing quality higher education, HBCUs provide an opportunity for students to learn about Black heritage and history while simultaneously instilling pride, a strong sense of self-worth, and empowerment.
In the 1960s, HBCUs served as safe havens for Civil Rights activists, played an active role in helping to advance voting rights (Freedom Summer), and were often places that welcomed Jewish professors to join faculty and staff. Dr. Ernst Borinski, a German Jewish immigrant who escaped the Holocaust and came to America, taught at Tougaloo College from 1947 until his death in 1983. He reshaped the Sociology department and made tremendous contributions to the school overall.
The bomb threats to HBCUs are painful and terrifying, but unfortunately intimidation, violence, and threats of violence as it pertains to Black Americans and education is not uncommon. According to the Atlantic, in 1740, South Carolina made it a crime to teach enslaved people how to read and write, with fines of up to $500 and beatings. Fast forward to today: in addition to the threat of violence at HBCUs, many Black students in secondary schools face another kind of threat related to education. The threats faced by Black students are underfunding; understaffing; and "under-performing schools," all created by a system of inequities and unjust policies and laws.
The bomb threats to HBCUs and the terrorist act at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX resurfaced a national conversation around security. These seemingly isolated events are not isolated at all, but part of a larger systemic shift that threatens democracy, freedom, and humanity. What we desperately need right now is a comprehensive plan to create a community of belonging, interconnectedness, and trust.
"In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute."
- Thurgood Marshall
As we continue to face these threats to our humanity, how do we create a community of belonging, interconnectedness, and trust?
- Dedicate time and resources to becoming anti-racist individuals and institutions
- Commit to building bridges and crossing them to create lasting and meaningful relationships
- Continue to support and advocate at the local, state, and federal levels
Above are a few things we can do to make our world a better place for everyone today and tomorrow. May we continue to support one another and stand up for justice, equity, and fairness for all people, "because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)