The Whitest Historically Black College In America : Code Switch Bluefield State College in Bluefield, W.Va., is 90 percent white. Its alumni association is all black, and it still gets federal money as a historically black institution.

The Whitest Historically Black College In America

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene. It is college homecoming season; and that means football, dances and alumni flocking back to their alma maters. At a small, historically black college in Bluefield, W. Va., alumni have returned for homecoming but to a campus that barely resembles the one they remember. It's now 90 percent white, the whitest historically black college in America.

NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji has the story.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: I'd like to introduce you to a few proud members of Bluefield State College's all-black alumni association.

MILDRED WASHINGTON: I am Mildred Washington. I was Mildred Harriston on campus, from 1951 until '55.

LOIS MANNS: OK. Its Lois Manns, graduated 1969.

GLORIA BROWN: People from Bluefield, you there in the '40s and '50s, this is Go-Go.

MERAJI: Eighty-three-year-old Gloria Brown - or Go-Go - class of '51, can't believe how few black students there are.

BROWN: You could shoot one of them AK-47s and not touch anything that look like us.

LOIS MANNS: My room was right through those trees, the last grate - in the basement.

MERAJI: Lois Manns, class of '69, points to the School of Business, which used to be the girls' dorms.

LOIS MANNS: Every time I come over, somebody says: Oh, you need to come over and see it. I say no, absolutely not. It is just too painful. When I think about what was and what is now, I don't want to revisit.

MERAJI: The dorms are gone, closed down decades ago; same with the football program. Homecoming is just not the same, says Lois's brother, Russell Manns, class of '64.

RUSSELL MANNS: You couldn't move on this campus from Wednesday through Saturday - on this campus - with people coming back, to be here for all the festivities. So it was - it was just enjoyable.

MERAJI: The Bluefield State the Manns remember had a lively homecoming, dorms, a football team. But what they miss most is a campus full of students who looked like them.

RUSSELL MANNS: It was created, basically, for black population of Southern West Virginia, to give them the opportunity to get an education.

MERAJI: The campus is carved into a hilltop overlooking train tracks that separate the white part of Bluefield from the black part. But by the '50s, the college was attracting African-American students from all over the country because it was well-known for training excellent teachers. Over the course of a half a century, all that changed.

JIM NELSON: To someone who's not familiar with the region and the area, it does look suspect to see a school that goes from being almost exclusively black, to largely white.

MERAJI: That's Jim Nelson. He's white and a Bluefield, W.Va., native. Nelson's been this school's media relations guy since the early '90s, and he's pretty used to explaining how Bluefield State became the whitest historically black college in America. He says, one: West Virginia is white.

NELSON: You're sitting in a small, Southern West Virginia city, in a state with a 3 percent African-American population.

MERAJI: Two: Desegregation gave African-Americans more school choice, at the same time the GI Bill brought whites from Southern West Virginia onto campus. And then there's number three.

NELSON: The bombing that took place at the student union building right at the Thanksgiving break.

MERAJI: Wait - what?

NELSON: The bombing that took place at the student union building right at the Thanksgiving break.

MERAJI: It was 1968, and students bombed the gym with dynamite - black students. It happened not long after Dr. King was assassinated and two years after, Bluefield State got its first white president. So things were tense. The dorms were closed as a result, and never reopened. And that's where all of the out-of-state black students lived.

LOIS MANNS: The National Guard killed people at Kent State - they didn't close a single dorm. So why did you close dorms at Bluefield State because of a bombing that didn't injure anybody?

MERAJI: That's Lois Manns again, class of '69. Manns, like almost all of the members of the alumni association I spoke to, blames the loss of a strong black presence to the shutdown of those dorms.

LOIS MANNS: So I think the reaction basically showed their own racist agenda. Now, that may not be a popular thing. But, you know, if somebody thinks differently, then man up; speak it to my face.

MERAJI: Without the dorms, Bluefield State's a mostly white commuter school. The students skew older; and are often trying to balance work, school and family - like Heather Hall; she helps run a farm and has two kids.

HEATHER HALL: Their homecoming is tomorrow as well. So I'm picking theirs over college. Sorry.

MERAJI: I asked Hall if she knew she was attending a historically black college, and what that means to her.

HALL: Honestly, I don't know a whole lot about the history. I know that this campus feels like home to me. I am perfectly comfortable being here - and not being of an African race. I just like it here.

MERAJI: Now, while a majority of students at Bluefield State look like Heather Hall, 10 percent of its budget comes from the federal grants for being an historically black college. Once an HBCU, always an HBCU. It doesn't matter how many black students go to the school, and that won't change unless the law is changed.

DANIELLE HAYNES: It's tough. It's kind of, you know, bittersweet. You have mixed emotions about it.

MERAJI: Danielle Haynes, class of 2013 and last year's homecoming queen. Haynes is black and comes from a line of Bluefield State college graduates. Her mom, aunts and uncles remember when the school had more black students, dorms, a football team; and homecoming was a big to-do.

HAYNES: I get it. We love the history here, and it's so amazing to hear about it. But my generation, we're not so much hardened by the fact that we don't look like an HBCU. We just love our school for what it is. You know, they said they found comfort here, they found family here. And I did, too, and it doesn't look exactly the same. But I did, too.


MERAJI: In the spirit of homecoming, student government organized a dinner and dance. It was sparsely attended. But the hundred or so students who showed up line-danced to the cupid shuffle and munched on mini pulled-pork sandwiches. The homecoming king and queen were both white this year, and nobody seemed fazed.

Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

GREENE: And Shereen is part of NPR's Code Switch team, reporting on race, ethnicity and culture. To learn more about Bluefield State, America's whitest historically black college, check out the Code Switch blog, at

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