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. If you missed the first installment of the conversation, you can find it here. This final installment examines the challenges Favors faced in writing the book, as well as his hopes for how his work would impact scholarly conversations and the world beyond. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Andy Hines (AH): What was the most challenging thing about or biggest obstacle to writing this book?
Jelani Favors (JF): Time.
Also, I praise them, but I am concerned about the future of Black archives. Black archives at HBCUs are some of the most important spaces, some of the most underfunded and understaffed spaces, and some of the most underutilized spaces.
I didn’t tell this story in the book. I’ll never forget going to the archives at Cheyney University, where they had just hired a new archivist. They had an old rusted out file cabinet that I was hunting through, looking for old student newspapers and whatever primary materials I could get my hands on. I opened one of the bottom drawers and felt a slight obstruction right near the back of the cabinet. I reached my hand there to feel what was blocking it. I pulled out a crumpled paper. It was a handwritten letter from Du Bois to the college president.
That story is a microcosm of some of the challenges that these institutions and these archives really have. We need to have better stewardship of these spaces and, more importantly, more financial support. This is especially important for these institutions to embrace and to connect to their legacy while HBCUs enter a renaissance phase.
HBCUs have become popular again. Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris was a product of Howard University; here in Atlanta we have Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was a product of Florida A&M; Stacey Abrams who was a product of Spelman; Raphael Warnock, who is a minister and [now a Senator], was a product of Morehouse.
All to say, HBCUs have entered back into the conversation. I’m not just talking about the cultural pageantry that exist on these campuses, the bands and student life, those things are very important. One of the things that I try to promote in Shelter in a Time of Storm is that the primary sources tell us that HBCUs are directly linked to the freedom dreams of African Americans. The activists they produce prompt conversations about how we should radically transform this country socially, politically, and economically to become more inclusive of the Black masses, but also for others as well.
This is not to suggest Black colleges are a perfect solution for higher education or for dealing with racism, sexism, and all of the other -isms that exist within our society. But there is a blueprint to be found to understand how these institutions were crafted and shaped and how they were used to tackle some of these problems and issues. As I said before, the history and legacy of Morehouse is radically different from the history and legacy of Harvard. The history and legacy of Florida A&M is radically different from the history of Swarthmore.
HBCUs have a special role within this society for producing activism and critical thought and unless we support these institutions and the archives within them, these stories will escape us.
AH: In the broadest sense, in writing your book what did you hope for it to do? I’m interested both in how you thought it might impact scholarly conversations and if you had other imagined potentials for it.
JF: I was an undergraduate student at North Carolina A&T State University and graduated there in 1997 with a Bachelor’s in History. One of the programs at A&T was a conference/seminar called “Missing Pages” that trained us as history students to think about historiography and the gaps that needed to be filled. When I was taking classes in graduate school at Ohio State, such as the History of Black Education, they opened my eyes to the missing page. The question of HBCUs and the long history of student activism that emerged out of these institutions, along with the political and social ingredients to producing that type of activist energy had never been fully answered. This is not to suggest there aren’t scholars who have written previously on HBCUs, but I felt that those dots had never really fully been connected. I simply wanted to fill in that missing page.
As I said before, HBCUs have been among the anchors within the Black community. There are still countless stories about these institutions that need to be told. Indeed, there were a number of schools that I wanted to talk about, but I have not been able to get at because of time or resources. I was just visiting a class last week and mentioned that one of the schools I wanted to talk about in the book was Virginia Union University located in Richmond, Virginia. It had one of the most radical and important seminaries amongst HBCUs and they produced generations of young ministers who became leaders and activists. Another example: I cut Howard out of the book and part of me really wanted to conclude the book with the story of Howard in the 1990s, but thankfully, my colleague Joshua Myers with his brilliant book, We Are Worth Fighting For, tells that story.
Overall, I hope that Shelter in a Time of Storm can spark our understanding in looking to HBCUs as an alternative and important space in higher education.