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A product of Jim Crow, Maryland’s historically Black colleges beckon to students of color today as a ‘safe space’ in a racially tense nation

When Mia Hickman was a senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, she had half a dozen top colleges to choose from. After weighing them carefully, she chose historically Black Morgan State University in Baltimore.

“I figured that when I got into the world I would have to deal with racism. I wanted to stave it off as much as I could,” recalled Hickman, a summa cum laude high school graduate.

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“Being at Morgan, you are in community with other Black people,” she said. “It is a safe space. … I probably won’t get that again in my lifetime.”

Graduating senior Mia Hickman, of Silver Spring, chose to attend Morgan State University in large part of the perceived possibilities of increased hate crimes at non-HBCUs.
Graduating senior Mia Hickman, of Silver Spring, chose to attend Morgan State University in large part of the perceived possibilities of increased hate crimes at non-HBCUs. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Created in an era when Black students were generally barred from attending traditionally white schools, Historically Black Colleges and Universities beckon today to many students of color as a haven in a nation riven by racial tension and worse, HBCU supporters say.

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“Many students of color are seeking shelter and the desire to stay safe. They see HBCUs as shelters, which is what they have acted as during times of significant racial violence,” said LaToya Owens, director of the United Negro College Fund’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute in Atlanta.

Students are seeking not just physical safety, Owens said, but “a mental safe space.”

Parents and students often say that “they were looking for a place with a nurturing environment,” said Brian Clemmons, vice president for enrollment at Bowie State University in Prince George’s County. “HBCUs have always been a place for this.”

Maryland’s four HBCUs — Morgan State, Bowie State, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne and Coppin State University in Baltimore — are about to receive an infusion of funding that will allow them to expand academic offerings and offer more financial aid to students. The state will pay $577 million to settle a 13-year-old lawsuit alleging that the schools were underfunded for years while officials invested in predominantly white schools.

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The settlement was approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Larry Hogan in March.

It comes on the heels of record philanthropic gifts, such as the $20 million given to Morgan State by Calvin and Tina Tyler, and the $85 million total given to Morgan, Bowie State and UMES by Mackenzie Scott. The gifts have further raised the schools’ profiles.

Nationally, HBCUs have also drawn attention for famous alums such as Vice President Kamala Harris [Howard University] and Georgia politician Stacey Abrams [Spelman College], who are rising to historic political offices and affecting national change.

All these factors are have led to a surge of interest in attending HBCUs, experts say.

On the national level, some of the best-known HBCUs report a swell in applications and enrollment. In Maryland, the two largest HBCUs — Bowie State and Morgan State — say their applications have almost doubled since 2016. Each received roughly 14,000 applications last year.

Black students are gravitating to the core values and missions of HBCUs, which have traditionally been places where students have tight bonds with faculty and where a “wraparound approach” — a nurturing environment where the university feels more like a family — is the norm and not the exception, Owens said.

According to a recent study, the Black Lives Matter Movement, racist rhetoric by former President Donald Trump and racial tensions at predominantly white universities also have influenced college-bound Black students to attend an HBCU.

“Students perceived a lack of psychological and physical safety. They were really propelled to enroll in HBCUs so they could be safe from racism,” said Robert Palmer, a co-author of the report and department chair for education, leadership and policy studies at Howard University’s School of Education.

Choosing an HBCU

Former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake could not stop the tears when her daughter, Sophia Blake, popped up from her seat in front of a computer and let out a gleeful squeal. Blake had just received the online notification that she was accepted to Spelman College, an all-women’s Black college in Atlanta. Within seconds both women were screaming with joy. The moment was shown in December via Rawlings-Blake’s social media.

Sophia Blake (left) poses with her mother, former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in their Baltimore home. Sophia will be attending Spelman College, a historically Black college for women in Atlanta this fall.
Sophia Blake (left) poses with her mother, former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in their Baltimore home. Sophia will be attending Spelman College, a historically Black college for women in Atlanta this fall. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

“I have seen so many women who have graduated from Spelman who have gone on to do great things. They have a fearlessness and a boldness that is almost a signature of their alum,” said Rawlings-Blake, a Baltimore resident who did not attend an HBCU but recognizes their value and power.

“The education they get and the experience they get really equips them to be prepared to achieve their goals and to be motivated to achieve their goals,” Rawlings-Blake said.

Blake, 17, who attends the all-girls Roland Park Country School in Baltimore, said Spelman College was a natural progression. During her freshman year at the private high school she was matched with two upperclass “Big Sisters.” Both of those women went on to attend Spelman College. She also had an aunt who attended Spelman College. Her father attended the nearby all-male Morehouse College.

The racial unrest of 2020 factored into her decision to attend an HBCU.

“Being in a space with Black people would alleviate that tension,” she said. “I wouldn’t have to deal with a classmate saying or doing something that would make me feel unsafe. That definitely played a major role.”

Rawlings-Blake said sending her daughter to Spelman will eliminate the worries that she has as the mother of a Black child — especially during times of heightened racial tension.

“I think it is really important for a parent to know that you are sending your child to a school where they want your child to succeed. You would think that is a foregone conclusion. But that is not always the case. I have heard horror stories where the support for Black students was not there,” she said.

Malcolm Mobley, a 21-year-old junior electrical and computer engineering major, said he was tired of being one of the only Black students in the classroom in a high school in San Francisco, which led to his attending Morgan State University.

“My high school and middle school experiences weren’t the best,” he said, recalling the time a teacher asked him if he fired guns as an extracurricular activity. “The stigma that I felt in high school was that I wasn’t expected to know much or do much or that I was lazy or stupid. I never felt that way at Morgan.”

HBCU students — both current and soon-to-be — say that as high school students they were often discouraged from attending these institutions.

Family members, friends and even guidance counselors tell them that they won’t get a quality education or will be at a disadvantage when going up for jobs against graduates of Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), according to Sha-Ron Jones, director of admissions at Coppin State.

“Throughout my career, students favored going to PWIs because they thought that HBCUs were inferior,” Jones said.

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Opposition to Blake’s college choice came from an unlikely source.

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“There were definitely different family members that said that HBCUs don’t prepare you for the real world,” she said. “I didn’t listen to that. I had my mind made up.”

An aunt discouraged Tavon Rone from attending Morgan State University. A high school guidance counselor told him that he would receive more financial assistance going to McDaniel College, a private liberal arts college in Westminster. In fact, several of his high school classmates were given similar pitches.

“I know we were told to go to a PWI because they give a lot of money to minorities,” said the 20-year-old junior, who attended City Neighbors Charter School. “I paid less money at Morgan.”

Rone, who plans to graduate with a degree in business administration, said he will be prepared to open up his own business, which will be geared toward the Black community. He attributes this approach to what he learned at an HBCU.

As for his aunt who told him that he would not receive as good an education compared to a PWI?

“I’m going to tell her to kick rocks and blow bubbles because I got here the Morgan way,” he said.

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