As Different as Day and Night
Missouri’s historically Black Lincoln University, now predominantly White, searches for a way to bring its two divergent populations together.
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — There’s a saying here at Lincoln University: “White by day, Black by night.” A hilly, picturesque campus with 3,343 students enrolled this fall, Lincoln was founded by Black Civil War veterans. It was once revered as the Black Harvard of the Midwest. Today, the school is 70 percent White. Yet when night falls, many Whites clear out. Blacks dominate the dorms, the frats and sororities, most social activities and, after graduating, the alumni association. Whites, a presence since the 1950s, complain they feel unwelcome.Some, like Heather Raithel, prefer the unofficial White student union — a study hall in a building named for Martin Luther King Jr.There’s little evidence of tension. It’s more polite avoidance. “They’re over there, and we’re over here,” Raithel, 21, an elementary education major, explained. Decades after segregation was outlawed, it persists at Lincoln. Only now, it’s not laws but a social wall that separates people. That wall, built by history, is buttressed indirectly by tax dollars. Lincoln is among the nation’s 104 historically Black colleges and universities and endorsed as such by the federal government. HBCUs serve 280,000 students in 20 states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands. With a legacy of slavery and legal segregation, the schools are singled out for their continuing mission to educate African Americans. About 70 percent of students at HBCUs are at state-supported institutions like Lincoln, though a majority of HBCUs are private. The schools receive special funding — $180 million in the federal budget just adopted. The money is provided under a law Congress enacted in 1965 to protect and promote HBCUs’ “unique role of educating Black, educationally disadvantaged and low-income students.”Every president since Jimmy Carter has also helped HBCUs; President Clinton created an office to aid their access to federal programs. Yet at least 15 HBCUs now educate a sizeable White enrollment. At historically Black Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Ky., African Americans make up 73 percent of 1,722 full-time students, but less than 22 percent of 671 part-time students, according to the state Council on Postsecondary Education. Lincoln is one of three HBCUs where Blacks are the minority. But it reflects a trend that ranges from Bluefield State College in West Virginia, where Blacks make up just 9 percent of 2,400 students, to Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, where Blacks make up 80 percent of the 2,800 students. Reasons for the trend vary. Blacks have more choice today than they once did. Geography plays a part. Stigmas fade. Civil rights lawsuits are pressing some HBCUs to raise White enrollment, just as traditionally White schools must bring in more Blacks. Tennessee State University must produce 50 percent White enrollment under a 1984 court order. It’s now less than 20 percent. The U.S. government also pushes states to put their public Black colleges and universities on equal footing with traditionally White ones — so that they’re academically indistinguishable. No racial quota is needed to maintain special federal funds. But officials in Washington notice the shift. “That is a developing policy issue,” says Claudio Prieto, acting assistant U.S. secretary of education for higher education. Speaking in a recent interview, he added that no funding change is planned. But what about places like Lincoln, which are divided over their identity? “In a very general sense, if people wish to segregate themselves, should the government support it or fight it? The answer is, ‘I don’t know,'” Prieto says. “It depends on who the people are, and the factors going on around them.”It was once a crime in Missouri to teach a Black person to read and write. When Black Union veterans donated more than $5,000 to establish Lincoln in 1866, some could not sign their names. Industrial skills were stressed then, along with study. But by early last century, as Missouri’s only four-year public college open to Blacks, Lincoln rose to prominence with faculty educated at Harvard, Columbia, Cornell and the like. Until 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregated grade schools illegal, Lincoln was all Black. Within months, Lincoln’s board of curators voted to admit Whites. In those years, Lincoln students mixed freely in social activities. Whites joined Black students trying to integrate Jefferson City’s bowling alleys, movie theaters and restaurants. “It was new,” Adrienne Hoard, class of ’70 recalled. “In the ’60s, people were more open to do the uncomfortable.” Hoard, who is Black and teaches fine art and art education at the vast and vastly richer University of Missouri 30 miles north, says this fascination with something new didn’t last. “Society is still segregated,” she says.It’s no wonder Lincoln students don’t mix well. “We’re asking these institutions to do things the society has not done.”
The Current RealityDuring Lincoln’s homecoming last October, the student union served an Alumni Soul Food Dinner. The dining hall buzzed with students and returning grads, not a White face among them.Audrey Ford, an 18-year-old freshman from Detroit, took small comfort in this friendly scene. Not only do Whites fill Ford’s classes, White faculty teach them. Just 22 percent of the 161 full-time faculty members are Black. “I’m proud to have Black founders,” says Ford, who chose Lincoln over the University of Michigan. “Proud to have something we founded and still kind of have.” She added glumly, “We’re a minority now.”Today, amid Lincoln’s modern towers, once-stately brick buildings stand shuttered in disrepair. Never well-endowed, the school operates on a $37 million budget. Its biggest funding sources in fiscal 1999 were $15.6 million from the state and $9.8 million in federal funds. Student fees and tuition contributed $7.2 million.Yet more than ever, Lincoln remains a magnet for Whites in the area. Located in the state capital, a city of 35,000 in Missouri’s rural middle, the school’s $92 per credit in-state tuition is a bargain. The typical undergraduate pays around $1,500 a semester. Compare that to $132.60 per credit and $2,300 a semester at the University of Missouri-Columbia, with 22,500 students — the size of a city itself. Add low cost to small classes, easy access to professors and open admissions and Lincoln easily attracts ambitious Whites and Blacks with modest grades, modest test scores and little money. They have a lot in common, but many cannot see past surface differences — starting with where they come from. Most of Missouri is White. Blacks, about 11 percent of state residents, live mainly in the big cities of St. Louis and Kansas City on the state’s east and west borders, respectively. The favorite explanation for Lincoln’s social segregation is that Whites “commute,” living with parents or young families, often holding down jobs with little time to play. Black students live on campus because their homes are hours away. The two groups diverge in musical tastes, language and mannerisms. But Lincoln’s administrators and some students are trying to change this. Students take a required cultural diversity course. That spawned a group two years ago called Barrier Breakers, students and faculty who stage events like poetry coffeehouses that appeal to all students. There are plans to offer Whites a scholarship to encourage more to live in the dorms; currently only 25 to 30 Whites live among 579 dorm residents. “We have to deal with the realities that, like it or not, we still have a largely segregated society,” says Lincoln President David B. Henson, a 61-year-old biochemist who has also held administrative posts at Yale and Purdue. “I would love for there to be the day when we didn’t have race-specific anything.”In the face of demographic reality, Lincoln clings to its first purpose. During homecoming, Henson sought to reassure a roomful of anxious Black alumni. “This is a multiracial university and it will be into the future,” Henson, himself a product of HBCUs, told a standing-room-only crowd of about 75. “But we will not back off. We are ready to help those Black students, just like those Black soldiers.”
Barriers, Bridges and RealizationsDuring homecoming week Nathan Otto bent over his books, bathed in sunlight that streamed through windows at Lincoln’s new $11 million library. Otto, 20 and a farmer’s son, plans to become a veterinarian. He lives on the family farm 50 miles away in St. Anthony. Lincoln was “cheapest, and it’s close to home,” he said. His dad objected at first, not saying why. Otto likes the school and its small classes, but avoids Lincoln’s social life. He lives too far away to return on weekends to party. Farm work and a convenience store job also keep him away. And fraternities don’t interest him.“From what I hear, most White people don’t go to fraternities,” he says, adding that he wouldn’t even try. “I’d feel unwelcome … I just go to school, put my time in.” Studying nearby in the same sunny spot, Kirsten Collins, 19, says Lincoln’s segregation dismays her. On a break from her library job, the future nurse, who is Black, says Blacks and Whites mixed more at her high school in Columbia. She misses that.“Everybody needs to grow [with help] from each other,” she says. Collins tries, but when White friends told her they would skip homecoming — even with the return of football after 10 years — she had no comeback.“I don’t know if they thought it was geared more to Black things,” she says. “But who’s to say what are Black things [and] what are White things?”
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