Blues for Blacks at Bluefield State: African Americans Awkwardly Strive to Regain a Presence at the Nation's Whitest HBCU

Article excerpt

More than one hundred years after the founding of Bluefield State College, the main campus remains poised high upon a hill above railroad tracks and overlooking the town's business district. For generations, the children of Black families living largely in southern West Virginia earned college degrees from this small teacher's college.

However in the past three decades, the local Black community together with middle-aged and elderly Black alumni have watched this formerly all-Black residential college transform into a predominantly White commuter school with community college offerings.

For Susie Guyton, a 1953 graduate of Bluefield State College, the national alumni association meetings used to be a time for rekindling ties with former classmates and other alumni. But last month when members of the Bluefield State College national alumni association returned to their alma mater, they found a campus that, for the first time in its 103-year history, has no Black faculty members.

"I'm very disappointed with the way the school is turning out," Guyton says.

Bluefield State offers what many believe to be the starkest example of a public historically Black institution losing its original identity to the demands of desegregation (see chart on pg. 18 for a listing of The Ten Whitest HBCUs). Despite their traditional mission, several public historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) around the country have come under court orders or state legislative mandates to become integrated institutions. Bluefield State, with an enrollment of more than 2,500 students, had just 177 Black students this past school year, making it the Whitest HBCU in the nation.

Changing the Course of History

Desegregation began at Bluefield State in the 1950s, when White Korean War veterans started attending the school. The college is one of two historically Black institutions in West Virginia. The other, West Virginia State College (WVSC), located in Kanawha County, still has a Black president and several Black faculty -- but it too has become predominantly White. Under state mandates, Bluefield State has grown from less than a thousand students in the 1960s, when it was predominantly Black, to more than 2,500 students now.

Years ago, Bluefield State College sat at the heart of the Black community in this southern West Virginia coal mining community. Now, there are few visible signs on campus that the school once served an all-Black student population with a predominantly Black staff. Black enrollment at Bluefield State has fallen to roughly 8 percent of the school population. At West Virginia State, African Americans constitute 13 percent of the student population.

"My relatives tell me it was a completely different place when they were younger," says Andrea Mitchell, a twenty-one-year-old African American senior at Bluefield. "My mother and my grandmother both went to [the school]. They talk about how great it was when it was mostly Black."

Changes in student body composition have resulted from school growth and demographic shifts in West Virginia. Over the past forty years, a slumping economy, caused largely by a decline in West Virginia's coal mining industry, has led to a substantial decrease in the African American population in West Virginia. Between 1950 and 1990, the state's African American population fell 56 percent. Currently, Blacks make up less than 3 percent of the state's population, and just 6 percent of Mercer County, which is where Bluefield is located.

Given that, the institution receives more than $1 million annually in federal funding because of its HBCU status. Black alumni and others have questioned why Bluefield State administrators have allowed the school to lose all its Black faculty. Some critics contend that school administrators have systematically eliminated African Americans from faculty positions and are deliberately attempting to whitewash the cultural roots of the school. …