The Evolution of a Texas HBCU: Now Majority Hispanic, the Historically Black St. Philip's College Has Positioned Itself to Serve an Increasingly Diverse San Antonio Population

Article excerpt

Though many smaller HBCUs are facing ongoing crises as funding and enrollment continue to dwindle, St. Philip's College in San Antonio has found a way to thrive. Founded in 1898 by the Episcopal Church as a sewing school for Black girls, St. Philip's has evolved into a comprehensive public community college with a for-credit enrollment exceeding 10,000. Currently, Hispanics make up the largest ethnic group on campus, and St. Philip's, part of the Alamo Community Colleges District, is now the only college to be federally designated as both a historically Black college and a Hispanic-serving institution.

"St. Philip's evolved just to exist. It had to evolve," says college archivist Mark Barnes. The college became co-ed in the early 1920s, and was classified as a Class-A junior college in 1927. At that point, Barnes says the college's administrators realized that the school would have to be transformed from a private to a public institution, "because a lot of HBCUs were closing down because of lack of funding."

Dr. Lanier E. Byrd, the recently retired vice president of academic affairs at the college, witnessed its transformation personally, first as a student and then during a 35-year career as a professor and administrator. Back in his student days, Byrd says the college was "99 percent Black." But now, as "San Antonio's population is largely Hispanic, the institution mirrors that population of the city. And St. Philip's probably mirrors it more than any of the other sister colleges we have in our district."

Maintaining a balance between the college's HBCU roots and its current status as a predominately Hispanic school can be a challenge, as evidenced by discussion surrounding the appointment in March of a Black president, Dr. Adena W. Loston. Some of the college's Hispanic constituents argued that it would have been natural to appoint a Hispanic president based on the current student demographics. Byrd, however, says San Antonio's East Side is "probably the last stronghold of the Black community, with St. Philip's in the middle of it."

According to Byrd, some residents in the neighborhoods surrounding St. Philip's argued that the college should have a Black president to "represent the African-American community and its rich history."

Adds Loston: "The community absolutely felt that it should be an African-American. We have a 109-year history of that, and we have the designation of being a historically Black college. The community demands that kind of recognition from the administration. And so, rightly or wrongly, that is still something that the community holds dearly to, and they're not willing to give up on it and recognize that the demographics have shifted."

Being an HBCU and an HSI

Loston has hit the ground running, implementing a broad agenda aimed at boosting student recruitment and retention in part through a recovery program for high school dropouts. She says the program specifically targets minority dropouts in the surrounding community, thereby boosting both Hispanic and Black recruitment. …