On her first visit to West Virginia State University a decade ago, Leisha Salyer, who is white, did not even realize WVSU was a historically black college. On an average weekday, the school of 3,800 bustles with white commuter students who are West Virginia residents—65 percent of the total student body is white, though most of the 500 residential students are black.
When WVSU awarded Salyer a volleyball scholarship, she was unaware she was on the verge of a college experience that would become a racial fairytale of sorts. She didn’t know much about HBCUs at all. There was only one black kid in her high school class, and his adoptive parents were white. “And you only see black people in the media portrayed so negatively,” Salyer told me. “State changed my outlook, totally, my whole outlook on everything, and I know that’s really a massive thing to say.”
Initially, she fell in love with the small-town feel of the tree-shaded campus in Institute, West Virginia. On the second visit, however, someone mentioned WVSU’s history. Founded in 1891 as the West Virginia Colored Institute, the school was among the segregated public institutions that opened in the South during in the late 19th century to serve black students, who were then legally barred from attending other schools. Name changes would follow to fit the times. Eventually, West Virginia State College became West Virginia State University in 2004. You’ve probably heard of the school if you saw Hidden Figures, which tells the story of Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, a mathematician and 1937 graduate of the school whose brilliant calculations of orbital mechanics as a NASA employee were behind the success of the first US manned space flights.
“I thought that it was really cool that my school actually had a history.” Sayler said.
When she shared the school’s story with her parents—Trump-loving Republicans—the scholarship was not enough to conquer fears about their daughter’s choice.
“Are you sure you want to go there and be a part of that?” she remembers her mother asking.
“Yes!” Sayler answered emphatically.
“They were so nervous about it,” she told me. “Then they came to campus to see me play. It was so funny because everyone was so nice to them and they would be like, ‘They’re just so polite. Everyone here is so polite.’ So it was kind of a great learning experience for them just to see a whole other culture and to see how it is around me and how they took care of me. My family and I just love it. It was just a learning curve for them for sure.”
Salyer, who spent three years coaching volleyball at WVSU after graduating in 2012, said she easily introduced her parents to her black boyfriend at WVSU, and they love the African American man she married two years ago. Yet she still has not told them that she did not vote for Trump, much less that she voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012.
HBCUs were once the only choice for many black college students, but even though that’s no longer true they remain pillars of black culture. Since desegregation, many have viewed them as spaces that spare black students from the racial tensions that plague predominantly white institutions. But today they are also home, almost paradoxically, to a growing number of white students. The change is most dramatic at Bluefield State University, another HBCU in West Virginia, that is now 93 percent white. For both Bluefield and WVSU, attracting whites has been a matter of survival, given the rapid decline of the state’s black population in the wake of the collapse of coal mining. Today only 3.6 percent of the state’s residents are black, according to the most recent Census estimates. (The presence of white students at HBCUs in other southern states is no longer rare, but they are far behind West Virginia schools in enrolling white students.)
“The African American population in this country is going to be flat as far as graduation rates,” said Anthony Jenkins, the president of WVSU. “So if you have historically white and historically black institutions fighting for this small pool of African American students, you have to recruit other students from other ethnic and multicultural backgrounds.” More on VICE.