Historically Black college or university does not mean Black only. Missouri’s Lincoln University, a Jefferson City HBCU, has a student enrollment that is 40% white. But the school has an obligation to maintain its founding roots, which were established after the Civil War by Black soldiers when Black people had no other higher education options.
Unfortunately, leadership at the public HBCU recently decided to refer to Lincoln as a “regional” institution.
That re-branding has “perplexed” Black alumni, said Sherman Bonds, national president of Lincoln’s alumni association. We agree with Bonds and wonder why the university’s new president, John Moseley, would refer to Lincoln as anything other than an HBCU — a longstanding and venerable brand.
Moseley, who is white, described the college as having dual identities, Inside Higher Ed reported.
“The African American space” that is an HBCU could be “reduced to the status of a regional college,” Bonds said this week. Doing that “diminishes the institution‘s national and international prominence,” he said.
Given attacks by Republican lawmakers against teaching about race in American history, it’s more important than ever that Lincoln hold steadfast to its Black historical identity. Iconic figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Oprah Winfrey, and Vice President Kamala Harris all graduated from HBCUs. These people and many other graduates like them changed life in America for the better, for everybody.
And every student at an HBCU like Lincoln, no matter their race, should learn the role of Black culture and African Americans in the development of our nation. But that’s not happening for all the students at Lincoln.
“It is a mission that we are constantly working toward,” said Moseley, Lincoln’s first white president since its founding president Richard Baxter Foster in 1866.
Moseley, Lincoln’s former basketball coach and athletic director, has taught at other HBCU institutions, so he’s well aware of the crucial role Black colleges have played in the advancement of Black Americans and the prosperity of the nation. “We certainly strive for every student to have the opportunity in the classroom and in life to reflect our belief in Black excellence,” Moseley said.
But opportunities vanish if students don’t take advantage of them. At Lincoln most of the white students enrolled don’t live on campus where the Black college experience, a traditional hallmark of HBCUs, happens.
Moseley said 95% of the students living on Lincoln’s campus are Black. These students are in leadership roles, attend social and cultural events and belong to the “Divine Nine” Black sororities and fraternities. The non-Black students take advantage of Lincoln’s low in-state tuition, which is 62% cheaper than the average Missouri school’s, and then return to their predominantly white, rural and suburban mid-Missouri communities.
A lot of Kansas City students are enrolled at Lincoln. And sure, that makes it regional. But that should not mean Lincoln abandons its responsibility as an HBCU, a designation for which it receives federal dollars.
“The biggest thing that you can promote in the state of Missouri is the legacy and the history of an historical Black college,” Bonds said in a letter responding to Moseley’s comments. “You don’t get that by changing your name and identity or regional platform.”
The 156-year-old Lincoln University is one of two historically Black colleges in Missouri. It was established after the Civil War to create pathways for opportunity for Black Americans. Black people were not admitted in significant numbers at white institutions of higher learning until the late 1950s and 1960s.
Moseley disputes that calling Lincoln regional would rebrand it. “The notion that we are going to turn it into something couldn’t be more false. Lincoln has been a racially diverse campus for some time.”
The number of white students at Lincoln increased to 33% after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case. At one point, approximately 80% of students were white. Across the country, about a quarter of the students enrolled in HBCUs were not African American.
Currently most of the Lincoln faculty also are not people of color. More effort should go toward recruiting and hiring Black professors, who are more likely to fulfill the curriculum’s demands through a Black cultural lens.
Moseley said he is committed to expanding the truth about race in American history, Black culture and excellence. Given that he has spent much of his career at HBCUs, we believe him.
We also believe that once an HBCU, always an HBCU. An institution like Lincoln will always be historically Black — if not based on the race of students, then certainly on campus culture, mission and ideology.