Oct 25, 2013

It opened in the late 19th century as the Bluefield Colored Institute, created to educate the children of black coal miners in segregated West Virginia. Although it still receives the federal funding that comes with its designation as a historically black institution, today Bluefield State College is 90 percent white. The road that separates those realities is as rocky as any story of racial transition in post-World War II America.

Where The Black People Went

The story of Bluefield State's racial transformation is wrapped up in many of the big political and economic upheavals of the late 20th century, although you might not guess it from the serene setting.

The college is tucked into the side of a hill, and folks at the school joke about having to climb up and down the campus. A lot of the folks we spoke to apologized for the campus's humble surroundings, which seemed odd to us. It was gorgeous.

When we arrived, the trees in the mountains that ring the city were just starting to change color. From the stairs of Conley Hall, the building at the top of the hill, you can survey the entire campus, train tracks cutting across the valley below.

This part of West Virginia was coal country and still is — trains still haul coal along those tracks hugging the college's southern edge. Many of the black folks who migrated to West Virginia to work that coal sent their children to the Bluefield Colored Institute. By the 1920s, the school was a football power among black colleges and a stepping stone for much of the region's black middle class.

In 1954, just a few years after Bluefield State earned full accreditation, the Supreme Court declared segregation illegal in Brown v. Board of Education, reshaping the landscape of America's schooling. Suddenly black students had more educational options to choose from, in theory anyway. And black colleges and universities like Bluefield State began having to compete with better-funded predominantly white schools for top black students.

At the same time, new technology was making mining jobs obsolete, and many black folks started leaving the state, heading North to go work in the factories. White veterans started coming back to West Virginia after fighting in Korea. And with the government footing their tuition costs through the G.I. Bill, the state's inexpensive black schools — the other was West Virginia State University — started looking more and more attractive to white students.

"We had an out-migration of students of color because of Brown v. Board of Ed," said Jim Nelson, a spokesman for the school, "at roughly the same time that we had an in-migration of largely Caucasian students wanting to use their G.I. Bill benefits. So that's what, as much as anything, that's what flipped the complexion of the school."

By the mid-1960s, Bluefield State was only about half-black. But the college, founded and run by black folks to serve black students, was about to undertake a big, ugly fight over its future identity.

In 1966, the state picked Wendell G. Hardway to lead the college — the school's first white president. Deirdre Guyton, who runs the college's alumni affairs department, said that Hardway was the first president to live off campus rather than at Hatter Hall, the house in the center of campus named for the school's black founder. By 1968, according to the book Bluefield State College Centennial History, Hardway had hired 23 new faculty members — all of whom were white. The book goes on to say that the college's dedicated faculty, which had been all-black as recently as 1954, was only 30 percent black by 1967. If there was a tug of war over what the college was going to be, many of the black alumni and students felt they were losing. Bluefield State was quickly becoming unrecognizable.

That tug of war looked a lot like battles being waged across the country, like the growing divide between black folks who believed in nonviolence as an avenue to black progress and those who felt that method was taking too long and yielding too little. During halftime at homecoming in 1967, black students staged a demonstration on the football field to protest what they saw as Hardway's discrimination against black faculty and students. Things got rowdy. The police were called. Students were suspended.

Things got rowdier. In 1968, the year that Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were killed, tensions on the campus were boiling over. Administrators started receiving death threats. Students met with Hardway in a dorm, but that, too, went sour. Edgar James, a black student and Army vet, tried to hand Hardway a list of 35 demands, one of which called for his resignation. That didn't go over well.

A group of the more radical black students, including James, held a meeting in November in the student union building. They wore matchbooks with the letters "EOW" written on them. Hardway translated the reference for an AP reporter: "The rumor on campus is that it means they intend to burn down the campus by the 'end of the week.' "

James, speaking to the same reporter on behalf of the radical students, laid out what they saw as the stakes: "They are carrying out mental genocide here, trying for the educational extermination of the black student," he said. "There is a systematic weeding out of the black student. This is an imperialistic and oppressive system at Bluefield."

And then on Nov. 21, 1968, while most of the campus was away for Thanksgiving, a bomb tore through the campus gym.

Although there were several campus employees nearby, no one was injured. Newspaper accounts said that the explosion left a gaping hole in the side of the building. Court papers said that lots of people on campus knew of the plot to dynamite the gymnasium, especially students living in the dorms, which those documents describe as "virtually all black." ("You could forget about finding an apartment if you were a black student at Bluefield State," according to Tara Tuckwiller of the Charleston Gazette. "White landlords in the area wouldn't exactly welcome you with open arms.")

In response to the bombing, Hardway shut down the dorms.

Hardway said the bombing was the work of Northern agitators who lived in those dorms. James was indicted for the bombing, but the charges against him were eventually dropped. According to alumni we spoke to, however, many black students felt that it was the pretext Hardway needed to turn the school all white.

"The National Guard killed people at Kent State; they didn't close a single dorm," said Lois Manns, an alumna from the Class of 1969. "So why did you close dorms at Bluefield State for a bombing that didn't injure anybody? And basically it was just a form of protest when militancy and protest was the order of the times. It was the '60s! So I think the reaction that the Legislature and other people took shows their own racist agenda. Now that may not be a popular thing, but if somebody thinks differently, then man up. Speak it to my face."

The bombing and the closing of the dorms led to a dramatic shift in Bluefield State's makeup. The black students who'd come to the college from far away suddenly had no place to live. And with black folks migrating away from the region, the Bluefield State campus began to look increasingly like the rest of West Virginia, one of the whitest states in the country. (West Virginia State, the state's other black college and the second-whitest HBCU in the country, underwent a similar transformation.)

In the span of about two decades, Bluefield State had gone from an all-black college to a mostly white commuter school. By 1987, according to Bluefield State College Centennial History, the dedicated faculty was 6 percent black. The school wouldn't have another black president until 2002.

Bluefield State remains an HBCU because of a quirk of federal law: To qualify as an HBCU and receive federal funding, an institution must have served a predominantly black student population before 1964. There are several institutions today that serve a predominantly black student body, but aren't designated or funded as "HBCUs" because they didn't exist or weren't predominantly black before 1964. But there's no mechanism in federal law for removing that "historically black" designation. In other words, as Shereen puts it: Once an HBCU, always an HBCU.


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