Black universities struggle to stay afloat amid financial turmoil

The federal government knew it had a mess on its hands at the end of the Civil War – 4 million emancipated slaves, few of them educated enough to earn a living.

So the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands used confiscated Confederate land and $400,000 to found schools for blacks, whose education was illegal in the antebellum South.

Many of those schools – public and private institutions known today as Historically Black Colleges and Universities – have been struggling ever since.

Today, some of the 103 schools face the worst crises in their history. Fifteen percent are on warning or probation status with accreditation agencies. Many can barely meet their payrolls.

Two – Morris Brown College in Atlanta and Mary Holmes College in West Point, Miss. – have lost their accreditation. Grambling State University in Grambling, La., is on probation after auditors couldn’t make sense of its accounting records.

The problems threaten to drive away students, scare off donors and close some smaller colleges – all at a time when two University of Michigan affirmative action cases before the Supreme Court have made the education of black students a subject of national attention.

Scattered mostly throughout the South from Texas to Florida, historically black schools helped educate much of the nation’s black middle class. Thirty percent of blacks who hold doctorates earned them from black colleges, as did 35 percent of African-American lawyers, 50 percent of black engineers and 65 percent of black physicians.

Such schools also “remain the cultural repository for African American history,” said M. Christopher Brown, a professor and researcher at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University.

Desegregation opened the doors for blacks to attend traditionally white schools, but in the process sapped the historically black schools of some of the brightest African American students and professors. The schools receive federal aid to help them cope; the Bush administration has proposed a 5 percent funding increase – to $224 million – for historically black colleges in the 2004 federal budget.

The money will help the schools. But if the University of Michigan loses in court, more blacks are likely to seek out black institutions, experts said.

The concern is that the stronger ones may not be able to absorb them all. And the weaker schools – those that say they aim to help poorer students and that admit students less likely to be accepted elsewhere – may not be around.

“The tragedy is, here you’ve got Bush trying to cut back affirmative action, which is going to drop black enrollment at white institutions, and at the same time black schools are struggling,” said Emil Thomas, 46, a graduate of Bishop College in Dallas, a historically black school that closed in 1988 despite fund-raising efforts by Thomas and others.

“We’re caught in a vice,” said Thomas, a Washington, D.C., pastor.

Struggles are a tradition for black colleges.

Parts of the South were still burning when northern missionaries began setting up schools in church basements and union camp shacks.

They called themselves colleges and universities, but their college-age ex-slaves couldn’t read or write. They were eager, however. Some gave what pennies and nickels they had. Others gave from their crops. Still others gave land.

Spelman College, an all-women’s school in Atlanta, started in the basement of Friendship Church with 11 students. The room had dirt floors. Students kneeled, facing the seats of the pews to write. When it rained, the floors turned to mud. If the sun didn’t shine, there was no light.

Angry whites threatened the schools. Many had watchtowers that their students manned at night until quite recently.

Henry Drewery recalls looking across the campus of Talladega College in Talladega, Ala. – a school also now on probation – and seeing Ku Klux Klan rallies along the road that cuts through the school’s campus.

“It happened too frequently to make life comfortable,” said Drewery, 78, a 1948 graduate and the co-author of “Stand and Prosper: Private Black Colleges and Their Students.”

“But what we had on that campus – the education, the support – outweighed what the outside world could do.”