The Untold Violence of HBCUs — Violence against Black Students and Faculty

TW: Su*c*de, institutional violence

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), founded in the nineteenth century, are well-known for empowering students to become leaders and change agents. Since these schools are critical to the advancement of Black people in America, many students are too afraid to critique these schools. I am choosing to critique these schools precisely because I love and realize their true potential. It seems PR is the only thing that these institutions care about so I will publicly criticize them in hopes that they will be pressured to improve their conditions for students, faculty, and the surrounding community.

I attend a Fisk university graduation this Monday. I felt a lot of pride and joy watching a large crowd of mostly Black students graduating, many of them, the first in their families to reach this milestone. Sadly, my joy quickly turned to rage after I heard the President of the school put security on standby and threatened to use them to remove students for any elaborate celebrations on the stage.

So I ask this simple question, why are HBCUs enacting violence on their own students? Is there a place in this world where Black people can feel safe?

As Black people, we know better than any other group that calling security or police on Black students is NOTHING short of institutional violence. So why is this practice normalized at our institutions of higher learning? What’s the point of attending an HBCU if you’re not free from these m̶i̶c̶r̶o̶a̶g̶g̶r̶e̶s̶s̶i̶o̶n̶s̶ macroaggressions? And it’s not just Fisk who’s guilty of this practice. My own HBCU medical school called campus police on me on January 26th, 2022 for sitting outside of the president's office, because I wanted to speak to him about the 30+ students who failed their first semester of medical school and the many students expressing suicidality & other mental health struggles. You can read my tweet about it here.

HBCUs are historically meant to be a safe space for Black students to empower themselves but at this point, I feel like they are holding us back. If you take a look at the shoddy classrooms, outdated technology, slow wi-fi, crumbling infrastructure, and lack of adequate training for hybrid, asynchronous, and synchronous teaching, it's almost as if we’re still in the 1960s instead of 2022. Rather than investing and empowering students to become leaders and change agents, these schools are retaliating against students who push for reform. For example, my school withheld financial aid from me for over a month and attempted to impede my progress in school. When I complained about them retaliating against me, the school used an administrator that I made a complaint about to investigate ME instead of my complaints. I was at a loss for words.

Then the school’s legal team prevented student affairs from giving me proper due process and it wasn’t until I retained a lawyer that things started to deescalate. I’m currently on a leave of absence trying to heal from this traumatic ordeal. I’m trying to make sense of everything that has taken place so that I can figure out where to go from here. But I do know one thing, I won’t stay silent. I have to challenge this oppressive system so that others don’t unknowingly suffer the same fate. And it’s not to say that this doesn’t happen at PWIs. That's not my point at all. It does. My point is we cannot allow our people to enact this kind of violence on us without saying anything. Call me crazy but I don’t take solace in being exploited as long as it’s a Black agent of imperialism. The wounds hurt that much more because it be yo own people.

We can’t expect HBCUs to liberate our people when they’re being run by a group of white trustees and house negros who choose to uphold white supremacist values over our collective liberation. With our leadership beholden to political and financial interests, racial representation alone is not enough. We need people with values and politics that represent the interests of the students and faculty at the school. Especially during a global pandemic where Black people have been disproportionately impacted and where suicide rates are increasing in the Black community, we need HBCUs to be at the forefront of protecting Black students and the surrounding at-risk minority communities.

Sadly, many schools barely have the resources to take care of their own students and I’ll admit, a lot of it has to do with federal and state funding but that’s not a good enough excuse. Howard students held a 33-day protest to improve their living conditions because portions of the university living quarters had mold, insect, and rodent infestations, as well as leaky ceilings and flooding — all of which they say put their health at risk. My school gave us $10K in Cares Act Funds to prevent a similar protest from taking place after I asked the president about improving conditions for students and faculty. Morehouse SOM students had to go to CBS46 in order to fight for the Cares Act Funds that they were rightfully owed. Fisk University doesn’t even have an on-campus health or counseling center for its students. What do all of these scenarios have in common? Black students have to constantly beg for the bare minimum from these institutions. Why? Are Black students not deserving of these basic resources and amenities? Are we not paying as much money as our PWI counterparts?

People think it's petty but I’m not shocked when alumni who feel that their school failed to give them an adequate education or academic experience refuse to give back financially. Why should we donate to an institution that gaslights our experiences and enacts systemic and institutionalized violence on us? You get what you paid for and quite frankly, we’ve already overpaid. Unless these schools can turn things around and give us a better experience, it’s unreasonable to make such a request when students already secure larger federal, state, and private loans than many non-HBCU students, resulting in substantially greater debt upon graduation.

And students are not the only ones suffering. Faculty who work at HBCUs are also in the same boat. HBCU faculty don’t only teach at these institutions, they often pour from empty cups in an attempt to ensure that their students have a fighting chance at succeeding in these under-resourced schools. These faculty are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated, with little to no job stability unless they’re tenured. Their options are to stay silent, leave for greener pastures, or get fired for being outspoken advocates for students. It saddens me to see them leave but it pains me, even more, to watch them stay and suffer. Our dedicated faculty deserve more from these institutions. We as students must come together with alumni to fight to improve the material conditions of these schools for current & future students, faculty, and the future of our institutions. I stand by my brothers and sisters at Howard for standing with their faculty. Honestly, I wish we could inject your leadership and heroism into every HBCU because we desperately need more of that revolution energy.

Let this letter serve as a call out and a call to action to HBCUs: Having Black leadership is not enough. We need leadership that transcends imperialistic, capitalistic, and white supremacist values. Evaluate your policy and practices to ensure that they are consistently anti-racist, anti-violent, and anti-oppressive. Our people are dying and killing themselves; we not only need compassion from HBCU leadership but a budget that reflects their commitment to equity and justice for students and faculty at these schools.

Students, your faculty doesn’t have much power. You need to organize with your fellow students and alumni to demand the kind of changes that your school needs. You are more powerful than you know.

HBCUs are critical engines for Black economic mobility. This is why their leadership should invest in providing better quality education and prioritize providing more reliable safe havens for students through housing, food security, health-care access, and mental-health support.

We are capable of bringing HBCUs back to prominence — The question is, will HBCU leadership listen to our warning or will they run these businesses to the ground?

Only time will tell.




Neuroscience BA from Amherst College — Passionate about Health Equity — Advocate for Medicare for All and Universal Basic Income — BLM

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Benaias Esayeas

Benaias Esayeas

Neuroscience BA from Amherst College — Passionate about Health Equity — Advocate for Medicare for All and Universal Basic Income — BLM

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