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A new book makes the case that HBCUs are owed reparations

Adam Harris’ new book, “The State Must Provide,” examines the impact of racism on higher education and why Black colleges deserve financial restitution.

Out of curiosity as a student at Alabama A&M University, Adam Harris took the 6 1/2-mile drive across town to the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and he was bewildered by the glaring differences in the two campuses.

“They had new and newly renovated buildings,” Harris recalled. “The library had longer operating hours and a more extensive collection. Potholes had been filled — if they’d ever been there. And very few of the students I saw that day were Black, which was interesting for a regional school because Huntsville is roughly 30 percent Black. But just 10 percent of UAH’s campus was Black.”

Those differences sparked a question: Why?

Why were the facilities superior at the predominately white school founded in 1950 than the historically Black university founded 75 years earlier, in 1875?

That fundamental question Harris pondered for a decade became the impetus for his newly released book, “The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal—and How to Set Them Right.” A reporter for The Atlantic, Harris crafted a comprehensive work that examines the vast history of how racial discrimination against historically Black colleges and universities manifested itself in governmental underfunding and undermining that augmented many of the schools’ lifelong struggles. The years of federal neglect led Harris to conclude that HBCUs are owed reparations from the overall bias they have suffered. 

He highlights laws like the Morrill Act of 1862, which was supposed to provide grants of land to states to finance the establishment of colleges specializing in “agriculture and the mechanical arts.” But state lawmakers misused or did not apply it to Black colleges.

“I couldn’t really make sense of some of those differences between Alabama A&M and UAH until I got into to a professional setting and started covering both federal higher education policy and historically Black colleges and poked a little bit more at how federal and state policy helped shape and create the unequal higher education system we recognize today. I realized that there was a longer story to be told there,” he said.

That story was one of systemic inequality — and how that inequality should be repaired. The institutions that have profited from slavery, Harris said, “are the same institutions that were barring Black students from attending, while HBCUs were literally being shafted out of funding.”

Author Adam Harris.
Author Adam Harris.Tim Coburn

For example in 1871, when HBCU Alcorn State University was founded, it was supposed to receive a guaranteed appropriation of $50,000 a year — the equivalent of $1.4 million today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — for at least a decade, he wrote. In 1875, the so-called Redeemers — a political federation in the South during Reconstruction — swept into public office and launched a “white revolution.” They reduced that appropriation to $15,000 a year. The next year they reduced it to $5,500.

“At the same time,” Harris said during an interview, “the University of Mississippi’s faculty was writing in the newspaper to assuage the fears of white parents that they would resign rather than enroll Black students at their institution.”

“So while those institutions that were literally barring Black students, Black colleges were fighting for resources that were being stolen from them,” he added. “That’s why I talk about reparations. They are owed something. Thousands and thousands of Black students’ educational pathway was hampered by the way that the system has been set up.” 

Harris said the amount of reparations could vary from state to state, but he pointed out a few examples of blatant unequal treatment that has plagued Black colleges. 

A Tennessee government budget analysis determined that historically Black Tennessee State University is owed between $150 million and $544 million because of the state’s failure to honor the Morrill land grant agreement for 50 years. Instead of issuing TSU the same amount of government funding it issued the University of Tennessee, a predominantly white institution, as the law required, the analysis found that TSU did not receive any money from 1957 to 2006. Meanwhile, UT received its yearly allocation, and, in some cases, more than required.

In Mississippi, Harris wrote, the state was not adhering to the Ayers Settlement of 1980, which stipulated that when three schools — Alcorn State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State universities — achieved non-Black enrollments of at least 10 percent for three consecutive years, the universities would receive an endowment.

Because they did not receive the money, Harris said he remembered visiting Mississippi Valley State University, which had an allocated “million dollars in the Ayers settlement, specifically for drainage on campus. But the green spaces were browned over from flooding.”

Further, from 2010 to 2012, according to a study by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, historically Black land-grant universities in 17 states were denied $56 million in state funding that should have been allocated to them.

This was not a “one-off,” Harris said. “Each state has to do an individual account of how much they are owed in reparations for shorting these colleges. The states established this unequal system of higher education. People get kind of scared off by the numbers and how big the repair may have to be. But at the end of the day, the legislators have to understand that it’s their responsibility to fix something that was their creation — regardless of how expensive it is.”

Harris wrote that the government revisited the Morrill Act in 1890 “really to give more money to the predominantly white institutions,” Harris said. “The government said, ‘But you can’t discriminate against people based on their race, so you at least need to create a separate college if you’re going to use these Morrill Act funds.’”

“So, while it did endow some HBCUs,” he added, “it significantly gave the Penn States of the world and the Iowa States of the world and other institutions more money.”

Harris’ book also covers many other cases that illuminate Harris’ points on reparations. Although segregation has long ended, legally, Harris said systemic and institutional racism in higher education remains strong.

“If you look at a place like Auburn University,” he said. “It was 1985 when Bo Jackson won the Heisman as the best college football player in the country. That same day, a federal judge declared Auburn University the most segregated institution in the state of Alabama. They had about 2 or 3 percent Black students at the time.”

“Fast-forward to 2002,” he continued. “They had about 5 percent Black students. And look at Auburn now and it has fewer Black students, in total, than in 2002, even though its overall enrollment has grown by thousands. And so, the situation has not gotten a lot better. And a lot of cases in higher education, it has grown more stratified where the institutions that have the most resources and the most funding have the fewest Black students.” 

“So there is this tendency to lean on this myth-making of America and sort of hero worship of American history and American life that is unproductive,” he said. “People should want to know history and the truth about how we got to this place and where we can and should go from here.”

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