Kim and Tommy Sturdivant said they didn’t consider pulling their two children — son Seth at Morgan State University and daughter Mia at Howard University — out of school after the rash of gun violence that struck historically Black colleges and universities across the country earlier this month.
The Sturdivants were troubled, for sure, but they were mostly concerned about the overall security level at HBCUs and wanted to know what could be done to prevent or minimize gun violence in the future.
“That’s the primary thing moving forward,” Kim Sturdivant said. “Do I feel the schools could do better with security? Yes. And I think they will, because no one wants to experience any more of what’s been going on.”
HBCUs were traumatized by on-campus shootings over a 12-day stretch this month. On Oct. 3, four students were shot on the campus of Morgan State University in Baltimore, prompting the cancellation of the homecoming ceremony. Five days later, about 40 miles away at Bowie State University, two students were shot during homecoming weekend. And on Oct. 15, Jackson State University student Jaylen Burns was shot and killed on school grounds in Mississippi.
But seven Black parents interviewed by NBC News said that, despite the emotion and fear brought on by the violence, they leaned toward providing their children with an HBCU experience rather than remove them from school.
“HBCUs are too powerful, too meaningful to give up on,” Sturdivant said. “Security issues are serious and have to be addressed. Our kids need to be safe. The schools have to do whatever they have to, to assure that. But our kids love their HBCUs — their classmates, the feeling of home, the connection that is different from any other college experience. It’s a unique experience, a feeling of family, that we all love and will see it through.”
As a graduate of Delaware State University, Allisa Carr McPherson said that many people do not “understand the power of an HBCU education,” which is why she did not think of bringing home her son Lorenzo from Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
“I’m not going to act like I wasn’t concerned; I was,” said McPherson. “Something has to be done about the gun violence. I was worried about copycats and it spreading to other campuses. My HBCU experience was good and special,” said the Elk Grove, California mother. She added that her son received good care and support from campus administrators after being diagnosed with a mental illness.
“The gun violence was alarming, but I wouldn’t take him out of an HBCU,” where “looking out for each other is part of the culture.”
Andre Gilyard said he had been so busy working at his Atlanta-area insurance agency that he had not seen the news of the HBCU shootings. But his daughter Dasia was unfazed by the news.
“They have had bomb threats on her campus, so this was just another thing to deal with,” Gilyard said. “She loves her Black college experience and she feels safe that the campus has the proper protocols in place. So the things that could happen don’t outweigh her great three years at her HBCU. And I definitely did not think about asking her to come home.”
Miles across the country, in Washington, D.C., Wylene Judge-Turner said she was alarmed that a group of local young men attacked several students during her daughter, Lauren’s first weekend at Howard University. She said, however, that gun violence is a problem felt beyond campus.
“The students aren’t committing these crimes; it’s the people in the communities nearby,” said Judge-Turner, a Morris Brown College alum. “It’s very disconcerting. Two mothers who have freshmen at Howard also wondered if they should pull their daughters out and send them to USC in California,” she said. “I never considered pulling my daughter out. I know that crime is something you cannot control.”
Arnette Williams Riggins, whose grandson Lyzell said he wants to attend an HBCU, similarly sees violence as more of a societal issue and would still like him to try the historically Black college experience.
“Most of the time, if not all of the time, the crimes we’re talking about are committed by kids who aren’t even enrolled in school,” Riggins, a Norfolk State University graduate, said. “So you can’t really control that. But you can control where you get your education, who you are around. And he and I both want an HBCU experience for him. It’s the best and it’s overall a safe environment because you’re around people who really care about you.”
Violence could happen at any university, Riggins said, “so why not be on a Black college campus where you feel loved and wanted?”
Jamiese Harris attended Tuskegee University in Alabama. Her daughter, Skylar, still in high school, wants to attend an HBCU also, despite the recent news.
“If we have some tighter security, maybe we can eliminate some of the things that have happened,” said Harris, who lives in the Dallas area. “But while I want her to have that HBCU experience, there are certain places I’m not comfortable with her going — where a school is centered in an area that is having some community issues around crime. But I believe in HBCUs. It’s an experience. You just have to experience it to understand it. It will be made better for all involved if the safety issues are at a minimum.”
Michelle Sumrall’s daughter, Aleisha, is a high school sophomore who is aware of the recent shootings but has not been deterred from attending an HBCU. And even though the mother expressed her concerns, she believes going to a Black college would serve her child best.
While she did not go to an HBCU, Sumrall sees how a Black-centered education has made an impact on her friends.
“They got the truth,” Sumrall said. “They’re not watering it down. HBCUs really build them up and they have that family and community that I don’t have after attending a PWI [predominantly white institution]. I don’t have connections with hardly anybody that I went to school with.”
Crime exists on non-HBCU campuses, too, many parents said. As examples, they cited the fatal shootings at the University at North Carolina in September, the second in two years on the Chapel Hill campus, and the one at Michigan State University on February 13.
“It’s a reflection of societal ills and definitely relaxed gun laws that allow accessibility,” Sturdivant said.
Most colleges and universities bar guns from campuses and tend to be fairly safe from gun violence, but states that allow guns at colleges see a higher rate of shootings on campus.
“I do feel like all of the schools can do better,” Sturdivant added, but sometimes, “their hands are tied in terms of money, resources. So I don’t necessarily blame anybody. It’s just like a combination of things.”
HBCU campuses have taken notice and many — like at Norfolk State University, Bowie State, Bethune Cookman University, Howard University and Edward Waters University in Jacksonville, Florida, among others — have ramped up security measures, with extra police presence, entrances to campuses closed at certain hours, town hall-like meetings to discuss safety protocols and measures to avoid potential trouble.
“The reality is this: Unless you build a wall to keep the students in, you’re not going to be able to keep everyone off campus,” Harris said. “And it’s the same for any campus. So it has to be about heightened security, making good choices on where you go and who you are with. That’s it. We should not deny our children an amazing HBCU experience because of what might happen on any campus.”
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