Celebs, alumnae fight to save Bennett College

The historically black women's college faces closure, launches #StandWithBennett fundraising campaign

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By Gwen Aviles

There was a running joke in Toi Rice-Jones’ family before she was even born: when she came out of her mother’s womb, she’d come out as a Bennett Belle.

A Bennett Belle is a woman who attends or attended Bennett College, a small liberal arts school in Greensboro, North Carolina, and one of two existing women-only historically black colleges and universities in existence. The other is Spelman College in Atlanta.

Eighteen years later, and the family joke turned out not to be a joke after all, but a premonition. Rice-Jones, 31, followed in the footsteps of every woman on her father’s side of the family: her aunts Audrose, Lyvonne and Marilyn, and her cousin, Michelle. Her grandmother Gwendolyn Mackel Rice, class of ‘61, is president of the Bennett College National Alumnae Association (NAA).

Rice-Jones graduated from Bennett in 2010 and hopes her three-year-old daughter will one day attend the institution that’s rooted in family tradition and history. But that day may never come.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges voted in December to end Bennett's accreditation, citing major budget deficits over the years. (The school had already been on probation for two years). Now the institution is tasked with coming up with $5 million dollars before a Feb. 1 deadline. If they don’t meet the fiscal goal, Bennett will close. For Rice-Jones and other Bennett students and alumni, the possibility is devastating.

Rice-Jones remembers her Bennett sisters showing up to her theater productions when her family couldn’t — a gesture that meant the world to the budding stage director. Her classmates’ support didn’t stop upon graduation either. Her friends not only trekked in a snowstorm to make her wedding, but they took the 13-hour flight to South Korea to see her, when her husband, who is on active duty, was based there.

“If we lose Bennett, we lose a safe haven where girls can turn into women,” she said. “It’s a place where everyone is accepted, where girls who’ve been bullied or left out in the past can have a voice and be heard and listened to.”

Gwendolyn Bookman with the Bennett BellesHoward Gaither Photography / Bennett College

Upon hearing the news a couple of weeks ago, Rice-Jones “felt like I [she] was going through a bad breakup.” And she wasn’t the only one who expressed how significant the loss of Bennett would be.

Gloria Horton, a junior studying journalism at Bennett, is consistently overwhelmed by the support and love her classmates and professors have shown her. Before she even stepped foot on Bennett’s campus as an enrolled student, she said the students and administration made her feel like she was part of the family.

Four older Bennett girls attended her high school graduation, after having only met Horton once at an accepted students event.

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“These girls I barely knew made it a priority to celebrate my graduation,” Horton said. “It showed the sisterhood is real no matter what.”

Horton, who comes from a single-parent household where money is tight, is also grateful for her Bennett sister who helped her when she dealt with food insecurity during her freshman year.

“I pray we get funding,” Horton said. “I believe we will. Bennett has changed so many lives.”

The aspiring journalist also doesn’t want to start over at another institution because doing so would be a major financial burden. Bennett students only need 124 credits to graduate and Horton has already earned more than half that amount. If she has to transfer schools, her credit hours may not be accepted or honored.

"I would just say right now, we have over 200 people who have made donations from $1 to $100,000," Dawkins told radio station WUNC in an interview last week. "And so we are encouraged every day we see an increase in the number of people donating."

Despite significant progress, Bennett still has to come up with significant funds to keep its doors open come February. As a result, Rice-Jones, Horton and many others have taken to social media to share their passion for Bennett and inspire people to donate money.

So far their social media campaign #StandwithBennett is working and has reached more Bennett alumni, students and graduates from other HBCU institutions and even celebrities.

Jussie Smollett, who portrays Jamal Lyon on Empire, and his brother, Jake Smollett, an actor and chef, have expressed their commitment to Bennett College remaining open via Instagram and Twitter.

“In the 1930s we had 121 #HBCUs now we’re at 101,” Smollett wrote on social media. “Don’t let us be down to 100 if #BennettCollege, who has made the education of black women a priority since 1926, closes its doors.”

In addition to individual posts and pledges of monetary support, some alumni have formed their own committee called “Change and Progress for Bennett,” which one of its founding members, Shawn Hall, ‘93, described as a “brain trust.”

“We formed to ensure the fiscal stability of Bennett College,” said Hall, who runs a small business called All Roads Education. “We plan on tracking down and pursuing every avenue to keep Bennett open by putting our heads together and reflecting on what we do well.”

Hall stressed that it’s not just about Bennett meeting its $5 million goal. In her view, the college needs to raise closer to $10 million or $15 million so it doesn’t encounter similar financial struggles again.

Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel at Bennett College.Hardy Event / Bennett College

This is not the first time Bennett came close to closing because of financial issues. The college was on probation from 2001 to 2003 after a 30 percent decline in enrollment and a budget deficit of $3.8 million, reported the Greensborough News and Record. Its probation was lifted, however, after then-president Johnetta Cole raised $15 million in 18 months.

Hall said that beyond raising funds, the committee wants to show others that Bennett is a global player that “needs a nudge and influence from other global players” to show off its strengths. As a result, it is trying to get the social activist Marcia L. Dyson, who was a presidential scholar at Bennett, involved with its efforts.

Dyson is well-connected and could make a difference in whether Bennett stays open, according to Hall. The committee would be particularly grateful if Dyson were able to reach out to Richelieu Dennis, the founder and CEO of Sundial Brands and founder and chair of Essence Ventures, “on Bennett’s behalf,” Hall said.

The Bennett Belles interview Martin Luther King Jr. when he spoke at the college in 1958.Bennett College

Like Rice-Jones, Hall is a third-generation Belle and she too would like to see one of her four daughters attend the school that not only “taught me [her] survival techniques, but how to thrive.”

Whether Bennett meets or exceeds its financial goal has yet to be seen, but many have may it clear that they #StandwithBennett.

And the financial troubles may have even helped the school get on and stay on people’s radar in the end.

“Whenever I’d say I went to Bennett College, people would respond ‘Benedict College,’ which is an HBCU in South Carolina,” she said. “We want to stop that. We want people to know who we are. We’re producing world-class leaders.”