Swarthmore College

In Shelter in a Time of Storm (UNC Press, 2019), Jelani Favors recounts how historically Black colleges & universities (HBCUs) have incubated generations of Black activists from 1837 to the present. In doing so, he highlights that the distinctive space created at HBCUs is as much a product of the social bonds of students and faculty as it is of the institutions themselves. Favors identifies in HBCUs a different understanding of the relationship between institutions of higher education and the publics they serve, as well as a complex snapshot of how students, faculty, and administrators navigate racist pressure from state legislatures, benefactors, and schools of thought stemming from predominantly white institutions.

Our Associate Director, Andy Hines, spoke to Jelani Favors, who is an assistant professor of History at Clayton State University, about his book in mid-December. Over the next several weeks we will publish their discussion about the book’s arguments, interventions, and composition. This week’s excerpt examines how Shelter in a Time of Storm defines some of its key concepts, expands the range of institutions discussed in scholarship on HBCUs, and questions the utility of viewing the curricular activity of HBCUs through the well-trodden debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.


Andy Hines (AH): Two key terms you use to organize your argument are “second curriculum” and communitas. Tell us how you define those terms in your book. Also, how do you see those ideas opening up distinctions between the activity of students, faculty and staff and the activities of HBCUs?

Jelani Favors (JF): I’ll begin with the concept of communitas. One of the things that you do as you’re writing is that you often leak your work. You send out drafts to colleagues in the field and it was one of my colleagues who after reading some earlier drafts said, you really should take a look at the work of Victor Turner, who is a cultural anthropologist. Turner’s communitas simply gave me a different way to describe space.

One of the things that I tried to make very clear is that HBCUs were radically different spaces. We’re not talking just about brick and mortar. We’re not just talking about an institution. We’re not simply talking about a space, which is comparative to other institutions of higher learning. Indeed, HBCUs were about relationships.

Turner talks about social relationship and ritual being transferred within a space. In doing so, that space becomes liberating.  That was a perfect way to describe what HBCUs were really doing. When you look at the history of higher education in America, from the Ivy League to other elite institutions, which are being founded in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, many of them are not just rooted within the enslavement of Africans in terms of providing wealth to build those institutions, but they are also propping up the ideas of white supremacy.

This ran in direct contrast to what HBCUs were doing. As soon as HBCUs emerge in 1837 with the Institute for Colored Youth, they have a starkly different mission and the energy that circulates within that space becomes paramount in launching student activism, as well as a movement for liberation. Communitas allows me to describe that it is not simply a community, nor is it simply higher learning. It was a space that was deliberately utilized to advance the freedom dreams of formerly enslaved African peoples.

This brings me to the next concept: the energy of the second curriculum. When you look at the training these students received at HBCUs, they’re studying history, Latin, Greek, etc. all of the basic curriculum that can be found at Yale, Harvard, Swarthmore, and other higher education institutions. But there was something else that was present within that environment, which linked young African Americans to the freedom dreams of the masses. I describe that as a second curriculum.

The second curriculum is infused with what I define as race consciousness, cultural nationalism, and idealism. James Weldon Johnson, a former student at Atlanta University said, “This knowledge was no part of classroom instruction—the college course at Atlanta University was practically the old academic course at Yale; it was simply in the spirit of the institution; the atmosphere of the place was charged with it. Students talked ‘race.’ It was the subject of essays, orations and debates. Nearly all that was acquired, mental, and moral, was destined to be fitted into a particular system of which ‘race’ was the center.”

In the 19th century, especially in the late 19th century, African Americans were being racially stereotyped through minstrel shows, among other degrading practices, that suggest they were seen as having no culture and no heritage. People were raising the question of whether African Americans should be given freedom at all, which is another idea that emerges through predominantly white institutions of higher education—the Dunning school of thought comes to mind. But within HBCUs race consciousness stood as a counternarrative, telling young African Americans that you do have a heritage to be proud of. People like Dr. Carter Woodson utilized the spaces of agency to circulate that message and to prop up race consciousness in these institutions.

We have generations of race men and women emerging out of these institutions who are charged with a mission of creating and crafting and building Black spaces. These spaces can serve as a counter, can create counter narratives, and can provide a blueprint for the movement and the direction of the Black community. This is what I mean when I talk about cultural nationalism. Usually, especially in Black Power Studies, this term is applied to the cultural arts and while cultural arts are part of the HBCU narrative, I’m talking more about the idea of creating race men and women who understood the importance of Black organizations and Black institutions.

The last piece of the second curriculum is idealism. Over and over again in the primary sources, I came across these two words: citizenship and democracy. This struck me as ironic because those were two of the things that Black folks were being denied on a daily basis. Students, however, were drilled in these concepts in the speakers that are coming to visit them, and in their class lectures. The students talk about it in the student newspaper when they’re writing editorials. These concepts ran all throughout these institutions and the second curriculum has shaped generations of students from the 19th century well into the 20th century.


AH: In thinking about your description of communitas and the second curriculum, I was reminded of the distinction that Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in Between the World and Me between Howard and the Mecca, the former being the shorthand for the formal aspects of the institution and the latter for the Black social life that gathers on the yard. A distinction of this kind seems particularly important in your book, because early on you encourage your readers to disabuse themselves of the notion that white benefactors of HBCUs determine the curriculum, as well as limit the form and function of these institutions. What can you say about the relationships between the institutions themselves and the forms of social life that existed within them?

JF: Let me go back to the origins of the book itself. I took a graduate class at Ohio State called the History of Black Education. When I arrived at Ohio State, I didn’t want to do anything with student activism because I was an alumnus of North Carolina A&T, where we talked about the sit-ins at A&T all the time, so I thought that story was buried. But I had professors who encouraged me to take a second look at the legacy of these institutions.

One of the books we read in the History of Black Education class that inspired me was by William Watkins, who talks about the white architects of Black education. Watkins talks about the idea that white philanthropy had played a role in producing docile, complicit students who acquiesce to the ideas of white supremacy. That really struck me because as a product of HBCUs and as someone who studied HBCUs, if that’s the energy that flowed within these spaces then how do we get someone like a James Weldon Johnson, a Diane Nash, an Ella Baker, a Dr. King, or a Stokely Carmichael to emerge out of these institutions? Stokely Carmichael, who was a student at Howard University, was not shaped by the institution. He wasn’t shaped by higher education. He was shaped by the yard.

I tried to come up with a different way to describe that by using the term communitas. But both of those concepts, whether it’s communitas or being on the yard, speak to affirming spaces. These spaces give Black youth a mission, a purpose, empowering them, encouraging them to take on and to even deconstruct in their own ways white supremacy as they found it within their lives. The space was always radically different. Had it been a space that promoted docility and yielding to white supremacy then perhaps we would not have seen these generations of young activists emerging out of these institutions. One of the reasons why I wrote this book is that I had not found previous scholarship that had really answered that question.


AH: Your book begins in 1837 with the Institute of Colored Youth in Philadelphia, which would later become Cheyney State and now Cheyney University. Why did you want to start this story there, especially when so many histories of Black activism are rooted in the Civil Rights era in particular?

JF: I was influenced by a number of scholars and authors who have taken up the practice of looking at the long movement. Chief among those was one of my dissertation advisors, Hasan Jeffries, who in his own brilliant research looked at the long movement of activism in Lowndes County, Alabama all the way through to the Black Power era. He really encouraged me to cast my lens wider, because what we’ve seen in existing research is episodic stories.

People often look at HBCUs during the Civil Rights Movement, the 1960s, and there is a smattering of work which looks at HBCUs during the New Negro period, but not much beyond that. There is not a lot at all on the origins of HBCUs within the 19th century. In fact, the conversation often starts in 1865 and the end of slavery with an account of white philanthropists, scholars, and educators descending to the south to help educate formerly enslaved Black people. That’s certainly part of the narrative, but it’s not the major component of the narrative.

The major component is how Black folks had begun these efforts and pursued these efforts well into the antebellum era. I knew I wanted to start at the very beginning with Cheyney State, which began as the Institute of Colored Youth in 1837. This was a great launching point. I remember my early research into the Institute and running into the story of Octavius Catto, which is where I actually begin that chapter. Of course, there are other scholars who have talked about the legacy of Cheyney, but I knew that Octavius Catto and people like Fanny Jackson Coppin represented the type of scholars whose stories had not been fully fleshed out or had not been connected to the communitas. They operate within that space and they deliberately pass on their vision and the politicization that they have been exposed to to their students. Those students in turn went out and became ministers and teachers working at the grassroots levels within Black communities. These dots had not really been fully connected to my satisfaction. I wanted in my own humble way to try to tell that story and to connect those dots.

There’s a line that exists between Catto and Coppin to the New Negro era and that era ends up producing people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ella Baker. There has been a lot of great scholarship that situates the Civil Rights Movement as a grassroots movement. When you look at the material that way, it becomes clear that Black colleges are a part of that story. There are two major institutions which have incredibly and deeply shaped the Black experience in America. One is the Black church and the other are HBCUs. There’s a plethora of research and studies on the Black church but there just had not been a lot of studies on Black colleges and the role that they had played in priming those generations of activists.


AH: In addition to a capacious periodization, you also discuss a number of HBCUs that are not as frequently engaged in scholarship, rather than solely write about those frequently represented, such as Howard. Or, for that matter, when you discuss institutions that are frequently discussed, such as Jackson State, it is not in the context that we typically think about those institutions. What do you see as important about expanding this aspect of the conversation?

JF: I wanted to flesh out stories that have not really been told. We know Tuskegee and Booker T. Washington, etc. I actually was originally planning to write my third chapter on Howard in the New Negro Era. I did a fellowship at Duke in 2013 and that was the final chapter that really had not been written at all. There I was having lunch with one of my peers who was also on fellowship and who actually happened to be working at Bennett College. And she kind of jokingly said, “you know, everybody always talks about Howard, but nobody ever talks about Bennett.” It gave me pause and I say, you know what, you’re right. We do have a lot of work and preexisting research on Howard. At the last second, I dropped Howard and inserted the story of Bennett, which we don’t really know about a lot at all, particularly the New Negro era in which I focus.

By giving and providing a cross section of HBCUs, northern and southern, private and public, I help tease out some of these more complex stories. Indeed, there are three chapters in the book that talk about state institutions in the deep south: Alabama State, Jackson State, and Southern University. A number of previous scholars had arrived at the conclusion that state institutions were working to suppress dissent and student activism and I wanted to push back against that.

For example, I begin my Southern University chapter with the story of Felton Clark [the President of Southern from 1938-1969]. I dug in on Clark, as well as Jacob L. Reddix [President of Jackson State from 1940 to 1967], because I felt that they fit the prototypical description of the tyrannical HBCU president in the 50s and 60s, who were expelling students and shutting down protests.

That was part of their narrative, but I’ll never forget sending out this chapter to Matt Jones for feedback. Matt Jones is a long-time dean of Black college studies, who was a former student at Southern University and was actually expelled by Felton Clark. Matt Jones said to me “be careful with how you look at Felton Clark, because we looked at him as a race man until he wasn’t, when two racist state legislators forced him to crack down. Prior to that, it was Felton Clark who was encouraging us to create this notion of being race men and women.” That’s the type of complexity that I wanted to explore.


AH: In your introduction, you describe how so many conversations about HBCUs are shaped by the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois about vocational versus liberal education. How does your book refigure this conversation in particular and what are some of the animating forces shaping the curricula of HBCUs throughout the twentieth century?

JF: Everybody’s exposed to the Du Bois versus Washington narrative and I jettisoned that conversation from the very beginning. In fact, I remember reading a survey that had been done amongst Black parents in Mississippi and I came across one parent who said, “look, I don’t care whether they get a liberal arts education or a vocational training. I just want an education for my kid.” I knew that parents and students didn’t buy into that divide nearly as much as scholars had.

The other part is looking at the legacy of the humanities and liberal arts and how that radically changes in the early twentieth century due to socio-economic forces. There was a lot of mechanization and modernization happening in agriculture. So even schools like Tuskegee began to shift away from a purely vocational ideas and they began to promote the sciences and arts. This economic shift prompts a look at how so many HBCUs were really building themselves upon the humanities and social sciences. Much of that is because you don’t have engineering jobs open to Black folks for much of the twentieth century. Even beyond engineering and STEM fields, Black people were graduating with college degrees and were working in the post office and as door-to-door insurance salesmen, because they couldn’t get jobs anywhere else. That’s part of why the curriculum embraced and turned toward the humanities and social sciences.

These institutions were really founded to train two specific professions: teachers and ministers. The majority of Black educators that emerged throughout the South for much of the 19th and 20th centuries come from HBCUs. When they were students, what were these educators exposed to? Again, the primary sources and oral interviews for some of the latter chapters showed how students were empowered by liberal arts ideas and concepts. For example, there’s this great interview in the 1980s with Gwendolyn M. Patton—who was a former activist and student at Tuskegee and she passed away about two or three years ago. She said we were reading all this different work, being exposed to people like Malcom X, and  the humanities essentially powered this space. And she’s at Tuskegee!

How then could the administration be shocked or surprised at the activism that came out of this. The students were simply responding to the curriculum they had been exposed to. You find this at all of these institutions: You see the power of the liberal arts, the humanities in expanding the freedom dreams of young people by giving them a blueprint and the intellectual tools to work with.

This makes me think of another really great interview, this one with Rodney Higgins.  Higgins was a long-time professor at Southern University and, in many ways, was the founder of what would become black political science as a field. In an interview in the 1950s at the National Conference of the Social Sciences, he predicts the fall of the humanities and the liberal arts within higher education. He sees the writing on the wall; in the 50s and 60s, we see a push towards STEM via the space race and he’s concerned that this is going to change the curriculum, to change the temperature on campus, more so because he understands and sees all the incredible social problems that exist. He says that if we don’t give students the intellectual tools to deal with these problems and to help them prescribe solutions for them, then we’re going to falter down the road. This is a speech he gave in the 1950s!

I would dare say that what Higgins described is coming into being. The humanities and social sciences have indeed been weakened on these campuses. In fact, my epilogue talks about how it was the power of the humanities and liberal arts that really sparked the intellectual flames of student activism, particularly in the 1950s and 60s.


About the Author

Andy Hines is the Associate Director of the Aydelotte Foundation. He studies models of the university posed by Black writers and Black social movements, as well as the significant but understudied contributions of Black writers to literary criticism and theory.

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January 21, 2021