Will the AME Church Save Wilberforce?

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I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. My father, Rev. Larry Rogers, served for a time under Rev. Floyd H. Flake at Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Queens, New York. Aside from being woken up before dawn so my father could make 6 a.m. service, I have fond memories of that church and the pastorate of Flake, Wilberforce University’s former president.

It is not my intention to rehash, defend or oppose Flake’s presidency. As a historian of Black higher education, I want to rehash the fond origins of Wilberforce in Ohio. It is the first truly historically Black college or university—established by Black people for Black people and run by Black people. In 1856, Cincinnati Methodists originated the school, which primarily served the mulatto children of slaveholders until the Civil War clogged the pipeline. Enmeshed in debt, school officials appealed to the AME church. With Bishop Daniel A. Payne leading the way as the nation’s first Black college president, the Wilberforce we know and love was transferred to AME control in 1863. 

Wilberforce has now been in the hands of the AME church and the Black community for 150 years. It is again enmeshed in debt—$29 million. But will the AME church save the institution, like it saved it 150 years ago?  

The reports coming out of Ohio are breaking my heart. As Diverse reported yesterday, enrollment has declined by almost 200 students in two years. The college’s net worth is a mere $5.5 million. Depreciation has dropped the value of the buildings and equipment by an astounding 40 percent to $17.7 million. President Patricia Hardaway, who sadly declined to speak to Diverse, received a no-confidence vote from the faculty in 2011. Campus police cars are not being maintained for adequate use, forcing officers to use their own cars. The graduation rate is a meager 32 percent. Students are eerily notified after participating in commencement that they did not complete graduation requirements.

Seemingly, the only beacon of light still shining at Wilberforce aside from its glorious history is the activism of students. In the fall, 337 students—more than two-thirds of the student body—issued an ultimatum: drastic changes or they withdraw by the fall of 2013. Their constructive pressure today is as robust as ever.

This historic institution is hemorrhaging before our eyes. Will the AME church continue to sit back and let it suffer, let it die? Where are the voices of the AME bishops?

Apparently, a collection is taken up for AME colleges every year at the AME church’s annual conference, which is good, but not nearly enough. Wilberforce needs an international grassroots fundraising campaign spearheaded by AME central, touching every AME church and member in the world. According to one unofficial source, the worldwide AME membership is roughly 2.5 million, and who knows how many non-members regularly attend the approximately 7,000 AME congregations.

Love offerings should be taken up at every AME church, every Sunday for Wilberforce (and Morris Brown) until solvency is reached. Wilberforce needs constructive pressure and money, not destructive ridicule from empty pockets. Is it possible for every AME member to contribute one dollar? Is it possible for every church to contribute $100, $500, or $1,000 depending on the size? Is it possible for offerings to be taken up at the thousands of churches in affiliated Methodist denominations?

I have often been told, scholars have often said, from W.E.B. Du Bois (who received his first job at Wilberforce) until our era that the AME church is the greatest African American institution. Great institutions save their most prized possessions. There are few AME possessions more prized than Wilberforce University.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at University at Albany — SUNY. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. Follow on Twitter at @DrIbram

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