The Capstone of Black Education and Its Relationship with White Supremacy

- A group of Howard students at Homecoming (circa. 1930?)

If you attend one of the following — Howard, Hampton, Morehouse, Spelman, XULA, Tuskegee, or Fisk — you most likely know of the term “Black Ivy League.” And upon hearing it, unless you’re an elitist, you probably spend your time dispelling the notion that your institution aspires to be anything like an Ivy League.

I mean, unlike the Harvard(s), Yale(s), Brown(s), and Princeton(s) of the world, your historically Black college or university (HBCU) did not have a hand in slavery. Ivy Leaguesand specifically Harvarddid have a hand in promoting Eugenicist rhetoric though, and it’s a long shot that any HBCU has ever indulged in such a practice.

But that isn’t to say that HBCUs have not, in the past, been hotbeds of elitism, colorism, or acted as agents of white supremacy. Many of them have. Howard is an extreme example.

In 1989, former director of Howard’s Afro-American research center, E. Ethelbert Miller, put it bleakly:

“There is a feeling that this [Howard] is the plantation, and Cheek is the slave who has been put in charge while the master is away,” he said, referring to James E. Cheek, the university’s president during that period.

Miller had said this during a time in which Howard students, justifiably, had their fists risen in fury. Cheek had appointed Lee Atwater to the Board of Trustees, who, at this point in his career, had been a seasoned political “strategist” for the Republican National Committee. He had been a consultant on three straight Republican presidential campaigns from 1980 to 1988, for Floyd Spence, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, in that order.

He had made fun of candidate Tom Turnipseed for electroshock treatments that occurred 35 years prior to the 1980 election. He had disseminated literature lying to suburban voters, telling them that Turnipseed, a white man, was a member of the NAACP. He’d given a gruesome anonymous interview in 1981 to political scientist Alexander Lamis on how he helped reshape the infamous “southern strategy” to covertly appeal to the racist fears of white Americans.

And now, he’d been sitting on the Board of Trustees at the storied Howard University, arguably the most prominent historically Black university in the nation. Howard students had a right to be angry.

So they did what Howard students do. They protested. They made a list of demands. They got him out of there. They continued to sit-in. Because of this, Cheek, the aforementioned president of the university, threatened to arrest his own students. On March 7, 1989, the riot police had been called to the scene, standing face to face with the angered students of what many like to call “The Capstone of Black Education.”

“It is the position of the university that all of the student concerns are being addressed and that it is time to return to the normal operation of the university,’’ Cheek said. ‘“Any students or other individuals who persist in occupying any university building and otherwise disrupting university operations will be arrested and/or expelled.’’

- March 1989, Howard University students facing off with riot police (Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center)

“Rumors about police dogs and tear-gas began to fill the ears of the anxious protesters,” the March 10, 1989 issue of Howard University’s The Hilltop reads. ‘“Do not panic!”’ was shouted throughout the lobby.”

‘“One of the major [tactics] that the university uses against us is rumors,”’ one of the leaders said [in an attempt] to pacify the protesters.”

- Howard University protesters list of demands, 1989 (Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center)

Their demonstration against the university lasted three days. It was not the first of its kind at Howard. 21 years earlier, starting March 19, 1968, Howard University students led a four-day demonstration against the school. This time around, they wanted three things — a judiciary system for student discipline, a more Afro-centric curriculum, and the resignation of the university’s sitting president, James Nabrit.

“I think Howard University should teach us to relate to the Black community,” Montana Morton, then a junior, had told The Hilltop in 1968. “It should help create a Black consciousness which will develop Black pride instead of shame.”

The protest stemmed from events that had occurred a few weeks earlier, during the school’s Charter Day Activities. Students, in a group of about 120 people, interrupted Nabrit as he was beginning to confer honorary degrees. They had prepared a list of grievances. These included renaming the school to Sterling Brown University, establishing tenure regulations for professors, and “meeting the needs of America’s and the world’s oppressed peoples.”

“The Howard University, founded in 1867, is a plantation that perpetuates the subservient position of African people in America. The charter of that university is a document of institutionalized slavery,” one demonstrator had spoken. “The Board of Trustees seems only interested in the prestige of their positions and are not interested in the Black students of Howard University, nor in elevating the position of Black people in this country.”

The initial demonstrations had led to 39 students facing disciplinary action, without an official disciplinary board in place. This fact was a primary motivator for the larger protests involving over 1,000 students a couple of weeks later.

“This disciplinary board is nothing but a kangaroo court where students are being invited to be kicked out through these illegal processes,” one of the students facing disciplinary action had anonymously told the Hilltop.

It is for this reasoning that Howard students of the time had likened the university’s functioning to a vestige of slave plantation mentalities. They felt that the university gave no agency to its students, didn’t allow them to self-determine, and would discipline students for any reason they felt fit.

“The administration upholds the old slave mentality and cannot relate to the needs of the people and the community,” Jeroyd Greene, a student that had been expelled, said. “They do not want power to be given to the students because those house n*ggers (the Administration) could no longer be the power brokers.”

Greene’s observations were astute. In 1967, the year prior to the aforementioned protests, president Nabrit had expelled 14 student activists and five faculty members for protesting the presence of draft board director General Lewis B. Hershey. The students and faculty had opposed the Vietnam War, and didn’t want a recruiter on their campus, because, as one student put it, “America is the Black man’s battleground,” not Vietnam.

Howard’s demonstrators of 1968 didn’t want a repeat of these expulsions. They pressed the university to drop the charges against the 39 demonstrators, which the university did. They also pressed the university for a more Afro-centric curriculum, which the university did (which is up for debate, considering it was still an issue 21 years later.) Their boldest demand, which was Nabrit’s resignation, was not met.

The Howard demonstrations of 1968 had a large influence on the demonstrations that Columbia University students partook in later that year, which received much more media attention (Here’s the Ivy League connection I wanted to make.) When the Columbia students made demands, the university had actually become much more liberal in their policies to follow.

When Howard students made demands — or even requests — the institution resisted, turned its cheek, or retaliated. Why?

The questions must be asked: Why does Howard University frown upon radical protest? And why does the premiere Black institution in the nation ignore its students?

I study American History at Howard University. I like to write sometimes.

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