Leola Hubbard: Let me put my glasses on. Here’s a picture of Zach standing on the steps of the big house at the plantation.
Stephen Smith: Leola Hubbard is showing us some photos of her family. Hubbard used to run job training programs. Now she’s retired and living in Philadelphia. But her family’s roots are in Georgia, where her great-grandfather Zach spent his childhood as a slave on a plantation.
Hubbard: And although it was against the law for slaves to learn to read, his master’s young son taught him everything he learned in school each day. So Zack actually came out of slavery knowing how to read.
After emancipation Zach and his wife had 12 children. There’s something he would always say to them.
Hubbard: “Get your education, because nobody can take that from you. That’s the one thing that can’t be taken from you.”
When Zach’s children came of age, they did something unthinkable in their father’s time.
They went to college.
Hubbard: All seven boys went to Morehouse College in Atlanta and graduated, and four of the five girls graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta.
Morehouse and Spelman were two of the schools that sprang up across the South after the Civil War. They were meant to educate African Americans who were not allowed to go to the colleges white people went to. Today, more than one hundred of these schools still operate. They’re known as historically black colleges and universities – or HBCUs.
By the time Leola Hubbard was applying to college, colleges around the country no longer refused to admit black students. She could have gone anywhere. But the school Hubbard chose? The same one as her mother and her aunts and her great-aunts. Spelman College, an HBCU.
[MUSIC: Jackson State marching band]
From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks Documentary: “The Living Legacy: Black Colleges in the 21st Century.” I’m Stephen Smith.
Lilian Spriggs: I always wanted to go to a black school. It’s the marching bands. You know, it’s the sorority life. It’s just a sense of home.
Over the coming hour, we’re going to be spending time at some historically black colleges and universities. We’ll look at why students still choose to attend them, and what challenges HBCUs face now that black students have other options.
And we’re going to start with some students at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Lysious Ogolo: Check 1-2, is this thing working? Check 1-2, check 1-2, all right. My name is Lysious Ogolo. I am a audio production major at Howard University. I’m originally from Nigeria.
Spriggs: And I’m Lilian Spriggs. I’m a junior audio production major at Howard University from Jackson, Mississippi.
We gave Lysious and Lilian audio recorders, and asked them to tell us about their lives at Howard.
[Sounds of music, talking and laughter in the Yard]
Spriggs: We’re on the Yard at Howard University. The Yard is basically a yard that connects the buildings Douglass, fine arts, Blackburn, Locke and Founders Library.
The first day when the sun come out and you hear that it’s about to be 100 degrees or something, and Mother Nature decides to open up and just give us the flowers and the bloom. Yes, we are on the yard.
You know, it’s just really nice to see all those people just scattered outside just having a good time.
[Lilian’s friend greets her]
Student 1: People are out here, like, having picnics.
Student 2: They put on their best outfits just to sit around and look at people. [Laughs]
Student 1: You kind of feel connected to everyone who’s ever been here. Like, we’re the Mecca of black excellence. Especially, like, in a society where there are stereotypes placed against you, saying you aren’t this intellectual, we don’t academically challenge ourselves. So to see everyone every day doing those things, breaking that stereotype, it’s just, like, mind blowing in a sense. Like this exists, like, this is not something foreign, it’s actually something that’s actually real.
Spriggs: For me, when I look at a HBCU I think of independence. You know, HBCUs are bred from places where blacks could go because they weren’t accepted. Harvard didn’t want us. Yale didn’t want us. But Howard did.
[Sound of Ogolo zipping up his jacket]
Ogolo: Check 1-2, check 1-2. Is this thing on, is this thing on? All right, it is. It’s me again, Lysious. I am here on 734 Longfellow Street, Washington, D.C. This is where I used to live when I first moved to the States. I’m gonna hop on my bike right now. We will talk as we go, just give me a moment here. All right.
My mom, brother and I came to the U.S. from Nigeria in 2008. It felt like a fresh start. I knew I was coming here to go to college.
It’s kind of weird riding a bike with a microphone in my hand. People are looking at me like I’m crazy.
I would drive my bike every day from Longfellow Street all the way down to Maryland. And Howard is, like, a couple of minutes down. And for some reason I fell in love with the school and I was like, you know what? I want to go to Howard. Yeah, I’m on the premises of Howard University. Good old HU, you know. In Nigeria we knew Princeton, we knew Harvard. We knew all the Ivy League schools. No HBCUs.
To be honest, I did not know Howard was a HBCU until I became a student here. I didn’t know that people debate about whether black schools are still relevant today. I didn’t know that HBCUs like Howard are struggling with money problems. I didn’t know the history.
It wasn’t until I got into Howard that a lot of what Howard stood for began to unravel for me.
[Bike noise ends]
Ogolo: Hi! How you doing today, sir?
Clifford Muse: Fine, how are you?
Ogolo: I’m well, thank you. My name is Lysious. It’s nice to meet you, sir.
Muse: Nice to me you. Clifford Muse, university archivist. I hear you’re interested about the history of the university, so I’m going to provide you with some general information and also show you some documents.
Ogolo: OK, OK.
CM: We’re going to go to the photographs in the office here.
[Drawer creaks open]
Muse: The earliest picture we have of students is probably the students in 1870 on the main campus. Let me get this. The photograph shows students who attended the university just standing in front of the building. I’d say there’s a couple hundred students.
Ogolo: Look at that. Is that a apron?
Ogolo: It looks like an apron.
Muse: It probably is. You’ve got to remember, a lot of these students came to the university and worked downtown, maybe domestics in people’s houses. Yeah. And so they maybe came after work and the type of work they did, they may have used aprons.
Ogolo: Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Muse: You have to remember, that Howard was established on March 2, 1867. This was right after the Civil War. Racism was blatant, segregation was blatant. The attitude nationally was that blacks could not be educated. But the founders of the university, many of them were ex-union officers, and they felt that there was a need for an institution to help the ex-slaves and freedman become educated. They got together—
Ogolo: I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Were they black or white?
Muse: All incorporators of Howard were white. All the incorporators of Howard white, all the presidents of Howard University were white until 1926. And most people believe that Howard was an institution primarily set up for black people only. This was not true. When it opened, it opened to everybody, irrespective of your race, creed, color. From the beginning.
Ogolo: Good afternoon, ma’am. Could you please introduce yourself?
Joan Payne: Good afternoon. I’m Joan Payne. I’m the interim chairperson for communication sciences and disorders. I’m also an HBCU campus brat in addition to having gone to Howard undergraduate and for my Ph.D.
Ogolo: Would you please give us a little bit about, you know, the history of Howard? How did it start? Why did it start?
Payne: Oh! [Laughs] It’s a very interesting and colorful history. First of all, I grew up on the campus of Tennessee State University, which is a land-grant college. So in many southern states there were HBCUs that began to help black folks be able to farm, and to be able to be competent industrial arts. The other side of this is the private school construct. And there’s always been a, kind of a tug and pull between the school of thought that said black folks need to work with their hands, versus the philosophy that black folks needed to be able to think, and that we needed to have professions, and we needed to be educated as leaders of the communities.
W.E.B. Du Bois: I had begun to criticize Booker Washington, saying it wasn’t enough to teach Negroes trades.
Ogolo: I found out in history class that there was a great debate between two men over this issue. Booker T. Washington argued that black students needed to learn the trades. W.E.B. Du Bois believed that the best black students should go to colleges and universities where they could learn to be teachers and doctors and lawyers.
Du Bois: The Negroes had to have some voice in their government, they had to have protection in the courts, and they had to have trained men to lead them.
Payne: Because of segregation, Howard and other private schools like Howard became magnets for the great intellectual thinkers of the day. I remember sitting out on the Yard on Fridays and listening to the great debates about black power and about Civil Rights Movement which so inspired me.
Malcolm X: It is better for us to go to our own schools.
Ogolo: This is Malcolm X in 1963 talking on a Chicago TV show about black schools.
Malcolm X: And after we have a thorough knowledge of ourselves, of own kind, and racial dignity has been instilled within us, then we can go to anyone’s school and we’ll still retain our race pride, our racial dignity, and we will be able to avoid the subservient inferiority complex that is instilled within most Negroes who receive this sort of integrated education.
Payne: What I’m seeing is that HBCUs are the only repository of African American culture. Because there’s no vested interest in a predominantly white institute in infusing African American culture with the students. There is, however, at Howard and other HBCUs. Because we need to do it in order for students to understand what the legacy has been and the history has been, and in order for them to carry on with the legacy and the history. So in my view, long live the HBCU.
[In Black Education in America class]
Student 1: If you speak well, acting white. If you’re getting A’s, you know, you’re acting white. Being educated is white. Is that reality?
Ogolo: This is my Black Education in America class. It’s one of the classes that totally changed how I think about being black.
Student 1: Do we think that? We really believe that? We think being at Howard is acting white?
[Murmur of “no” rises from classroom]
Student 1: So, but we do say that. But do we really value and think that education is a part of whiteness? Do you really think that? Yes?
Student 2: I was gonna basically say that when I was growing up, there was, like, this pull between education and my blackness. Because I went to a private school. So my friends from public school would be like, ‘Oh, look at him trying to be white, wearing a collared shirt.’ It’s like, c’mon y’all, like—
Student 1: Stereotypes. And we think that black isn’t as educated. You know, we don’t do math. You know, we don’t [unintelligible]. That’s the thing. Because it’s a stereotype. We just kind of continue to feed into it. Do we think that’s true? That we count ourselves out because we do not want to challenge or be found guilty of a stereotype?
Student 3: I think people count us out. Like, some guidance counselors will tell you, like, don’t apply to that school, oh, you can’t take that test. Like, I don’t necessarily think it’s us. We value education, we all do. But blacks don’t know how to attain education. We don’t know how to. Especially when people tell us that we can’t. It’s not that we don’t value it. It’s not that we, we look at it like that’s white. No, we looking at it like, dang, I wish I could do that. But I’m dumb. Or I can’t. Or only you’re smart ’cause you’re at Howard. I’m at home. I can’t.
[Classroom murmurs fade]
Ogolo: I remember when we first came to the United States. I didn’t think much about race relations in America. “Colorblind” was one of my favorite terms. I would always say, you know, I don’t see color, you know. But when you’re at Howard, man, it’s like you begin to understand that it’s not just about what’s happening now. It’s about the history. And the way I looked at America totally changed. And so I went from this young man who was just excited to be in America to this young man who was thinking to myself, so what is my place in this American society?
Lilian Spriggs: We’re at NPR getting ready to interview my dad.
Maxwell Spriggs: Hello?
Lilian Spriggs: Hi dad.
Maxwell Spriggs: Hey, what’s up baby?
Lilian Spriggs: Um, how are you doing? [Laughs]
Maxwell Spriggs: Doing all right.
Lilian Spriggs: Can you do, like, a “Hey I’m Maxwell Spriggs, Lilian’s dad,” something something like that?
Maxwell Spriggs: OK. Hi I’m Maxwell Spriggs the second, and I’m Lilian’s dad. Is that good enough?
Lilian Spriggs: A little tidbit about my dad. My dad is a special character. Um, he does like to be right. I guess I do inherit that. [Laughs]
So do you remember when I told you I wanted to go to Howard?
Maxwell Spriggs: [Laughs] Yes.
Lilian Spriggs: How did you feel? Like, what we you thinking?
Maxwell Spriggs: I didn’t want you to go. I didn’t want you to go to a black college.
Lilian Spriggs: Why not?
Maxwell Spriggs: I’ll put it to you like this. Based on my experience…
[Maxwell Spriggs’ voice fades under Lilian’s narration]
Lilian Spriggs: My dad grew up in Mississippi. Then he moved to California, and he started college at UC Davis. He was studying design to be an architect. After his sophomore year, he left Davis to go to an HBCU.
Maxwell Spriggs: When I got to the University of California, it was in the top 20 in the country. And I was doing all right. But I just felt I needed to be around my own people. And I left there to go to Jackson State, which made no sense whatsoever.
Lilian Spriggs: But I wanted to go to Howard. So, I mean, I wanted to go to a black school. I mean, so we started from square one. The first step is, what kind of atmosphere do you want to be at? I want to be at a black school.
Maxwell Spriggs: I mean, the black experience is, yeah. You get, you get something from the black experience. But the thing is, is that, at the end of the day, when you have to leave there and you have to go into corporate America, they don’t care about the black experience. You’re going to see that that black experience is not going to put money in your pocket. It’s not going to feed you. I, one of reasons I didn’t want you to go to Howard was that what happens is, is that the world we live in places an emphasis on your earning potential based on where you went to school. Certain degrees from certain schools mean more earning potential when you leave school. Put it to you like this. When I graduated from Jackson State and I went over to see if I can get an internship, get a job somewhere, they wanted to send me to work for FedEx. I looked at that lady and I laughed, and I said, “Man, are you crazy? What, you think I went to college all this time so I can go work for FedEx?” And the lady told me, she said, “That’s a good job.” I made a mistake when I left the University of California. I’ve been paying for that mistake ever since I left. And the thing is, is that I didn’t want you guys to make that mistake.
Lilian Spriggs: After he graduated Jackson State, my dad got a job drafting plans for an architecture firm in Mississippi. He thought that he could work his way up to partner, but that never happened. And he’s been stuck drafting plans ever since. Now he’s back in graduate school getting a master’s in architecture.
Maxwell Spriggs: I mean it’s just, it is what it is. Now, you may be the exception. You may do this, you may do that. You may come up with the greatest idea in the world and it makes you move up. But the rule has always been and always will be that I have to work three times harder just to be seen at the same skill level with my white peers. I have to be three times better. And I don’t want, I don’t want that for you. I wanted you to go to a white school so that basically you would have a leg up.
Lilian Spriggs: OK. I see what you’re saying but I just, I don’t know. I feel like at Howard they prepare you for that. I know, like, you shouldn’t go to college because you want to be with your friends or anything like that, but you do need some type of support. Something about knowing that you’re not the only black person in the room. That stuff can be very stressful.
Maxwell Spriggs: So what happens to those people when they go to work and they find themselves the only black person in a board room? What happens when they’ve gotta sit there in a room full of white people and they’re the only black person in the room then? How does sitting with people of your own race prepare you to be in a world when you’re going to be the only one in the room? You know I’m gonna tell you Lilian, you’re real, real smart. You’ve always been real smart. You remind me a lot of myself when I was your age. But I’m telling you right now, the statistics don’t lie. And when you leave college and you go to work, you will see it differently. You will be the minority in your discipline. Because at the higher echelons of almost all disciplines, not that many African Americans there. And the ones that are there, yeah, they’re the exception. They’re not the rule. I’ve worked in large companies. You could count them on one hand that was in the building, out of 800 employees.
Lilian Spriggs: That’s gonna happen but being at a HBCU, you are confident that you are the baddest. You know what I mean? You can walk into a room, and you just know that what is for you is for you. And it’s just kind of like, I just, I can’t relate because everything, like I don’t feel like everything has been handed to me. But I feel like there is no “no.” There is no “you can’t.” There is no door that’s closed.
Maxwell Spriggs: All right, we’re just gonna agree to disagree. But like your brothers always tell you, dad is always right. He always, I mean, it may not be what you want to hear but it is always right.
Lilian Spriggs: Not really, because I’m at Howard and I’m doing a great job. So I mean, you’re not always right. [Laughs]
Maxwell Spriggs: [Laughs] That’s how it works.
Lilian Spriggs: You’re so annoying. [Both laughing] So annoying. Whatever.
Maxwell Spriggs: Well, I love you babe. Um, are we done, or?
Lilian Spriggs: Yeah, we’re done, we’re done, we’re done.
Maxwell Spriggs: All right, you be good. I love you.
Lilian Spriggs: All right, love you too.
Lilian Spriggs: I understand where my dad is coming from. But here’s the thing. I get stuff at Howard that I would have never gotten anywhere else.
When you’re at a white school, they don’t even really want to talk about race. They don’t tell you what’s happening right now. And when we talk about it and we’re trying to tell them they’re just kind of like, “You’re playing the race card. Why are you so angry?” Right now in the black community we’re going through a lot. They’re locking us up, shooting us up left and right. I don’t think they’re gonna teach you that at, what, Harvard? White America doesn’t know what we’re up against. But we know.
Ogolo: It’s like this. We come to this school because we wanted to go to a school where we learn about our culture, learn about who we are, and who have gone before us, the people behind us, and the history that we carry.
There’s so much greatness to the history of black people. They’re inventors and writers and artists and creators and amazing things that have been done by us. And I don’t know if I would have known that if I had gone to some other school.
Stephen Smith: You’ve been listening to “The Living Legacy: Black Colleges in the 21st Century.”
That story was produced by Lilian Spriggs, Lysious Ogolo, Samara Freemark and Emily Hanford. And I’m Stephen Smith.
Historically black colleges like Howard helped build the black middle class. HBCU graduates helped launch the civil rights movement. They staffed the pulpits of black churches and the halls of almost every black primary school before the 1960s. For generations, black doctors, lawyers, ministers and other professionals were trained almost exclusively at historically black colleges.
But after desegregation, African American students had other choices. And that reality is draining students, and money, away from Howard and other HBCUs.
Pete Stith: If we are to survive, we’ve got to change.
Coming up, we visit a historically black college that is changing… in a big way.
We have more about this story at our Web site, AmericanRadioWorks.org. There you can see photographs of Lilian and Lysious and read more about the history of black colleges. AmericanRadioWorks.org.
Support for this program comes from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Lumina Foundation, the Spencer Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. More in a moment from APM, American Public Media.
[Pete Stith walks into the building]
Pete Stith: Got it, chief? OK.
Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary: “The Living Legacy: Black Colleges in the 21st Century.” I’m Stephen Smith.
Stith: Is the lights off in here, too?
President Millard Pete Stith is showing us around the campus of St. Paul’s College in southern Virginia. A security guard unlocks the door to the Saul building.
Stith: Got a few spiders in here.
The Saul building is the oldest on St. Paul’s campus. It’s where the first two classes of students studied. Now, the building is locked up and full of cobwebs.
Stith: There are books in here. A couple of them may have been written by Booker T. Washington.
St. Paul’s College is beautiful. Rolling hills, winding paths, big trees shadowing a grassy quad. It was founded in 1888 by an Episcopal priest named James Solomon Russell. After the tour, Stith gestures at a portrait of Russell hanging in the president’s office.
Stith: And if you can see from what his complexion looks like, he is probably the descendent of a white land owner and an African American woman. He was born before slavery ended. And so he came into this community to try to start some churches and then a school to educate the newly freed blacks.
St. Paul’s trained African American students in the trades: brickmaking and welding for the men, tailoring and home economics for the women. Later it branched into liberal arts education.
Stith: I found the transcript of a great-great-aunt of mine who attended here in the ’20s. And she had arithmetic, science, mathematics, you know, and she made great grades.
But in recent years, enrollment at the school dwindled. Other options opened up for black kids in Virginia.
Stith: What diploma do you want hanging on your wall? UVA? Or St. Paul’s?
St. Paul’s administrators tried to keep up. They built a 500-seat auditorium with a baby grand piano, and a student union with a three-lane bowling alley.
But it wasn’t enough. Enrollment kept falling and debts piled up. In 2013, the board decided to close the school.
Now Stith is tasked with finding a buyer for St. Paul’s. The whole campus – 135 acres, 31 buildings – can be yours for $2.8 million.
Stith: And whoever buys it gets everything. They get this new desk. They get the coat rack. They get the sofa. They get to keep everything on the campus! So it’s like buying you a house that’s fully furnished.
So far, no takers.
Stith: Each day that I walk into this office, and I just sit behind that desk and I look at stuff, and I see no reason for it to close. There’s absolutely no reason. 1888, there probably were pockets of slavery still going on and this guy founded this school in the midst of all of that. He had real threats. He had real threats. And he kept it open. And that’s a shame to bring this, this great experience to an end. It’s almost criminal.
Over the past three decades, five HBCUs have closed their doors. Many more are on academic probation or have lost their accreditation. That means they’re no longer eligible for state and federal financial aid.
Marybeth Gasman: But I would say, you know, out of the 105, and that’s the number that I use, is 105. I think that there are about 15 of them that are in pretty bad trouble. And some of them are tiny, they’re just basically holding on. They have 15 or 50 students. And they’re having a very, very difficult time.
This is Marybeth Gasman. She’s a historian at the University of Pennsylvania who studies HBCUs. And she says it’s important to note that across the country, small colleges of all kinds are struggling.
Gasman: But I think, for me, it’s more volatile for black colleges. I think it’s more volatile because they have to deal with racism.
People don’t think that they should exist. They have received discriminatory funding through their entire existence, you know, fewer private and public dollars than any other institutions. So it’s difficult to catch up when you’ve had disparities your whole life.
In recent years, public HBCUs in Maryland, Mississippi and Alabama have sued their states for more equitable funding. And at both public and private HBCUs, donations, and therefore, endowments, are much smaller than at their traditionally white counterparts.
And HBCUs face another threat.
Gasman: By the 1970s African Americans are going in droves to majority institutions. And they should be, because they should be allowed to go to those.
Before higher education was desegregated in the 1950s and ’60s, almost all African-American college students enrolled at HBCUs. Today, only about 8 percent of black college students do.
Gasman: So you’re really seeing a drain on historically black colleges. And I would say, you know, 20-30 years in the future, I think that we’ll probably lose about 10 of them.
Gasman says that to survive, HBCUs have to change.
But change is tough. Colleges are constrained by their boards, their bureaucracies, their tenured faculty, their histories and their traditions. Dramatic change in higher education is rare.
So what does it look like when it actually happens?
American RadioWorks Producer Samara Freemark went to find out.
Samara Freemark: We’re going to Dallas, Texas, to a school called Paul Quinn College. It was founded in 1872 by circuit riding preachers of the African Methodist Episcopal church and it was named after an AME bishop. It’s the oldest historically black college west of the Mississippi.
Paul Quinn is in a South Dallas neighborhood called Highland Hills. It’s down the street from railroad tracks and a 2,000-acre landfill. Now, north of here is where you’ll find all the glitz and glitter you might think of when you think of Dallas. But this part of the city is different. There are no grocery stores here. Just one bank. There are some hair shops, a whole lot of Baptist churches, and rows of one story houses with chain link fences and dirt yards.
Hannah Koski: In the morning you see a ton of cars headed north because that’s where all the work is. In the evening you see them all coming home.
This is Hannah Koski. She’s one of Paul Quinn’s staffers.
Koski: No one’s really coming to South Dallas for anything.
We’re gonna go back to 2007. Paul Quinn is hurting. When outside people talk about the college, which they usually don’t, they use words like “beleaguered” and “embattled.” The school is buried under a pile of debt. And a board member is being investigated for embezzling thousands of dollars.
Archive: Many of the school’s buildings are boarded up. There are broken windows in the old dorms, and attendance on the 144-acre campus has dwindled.
Now, when small schools go under, this is one of the ways it happens. They run into financial trouble. Facilities crumble, staff are laid off, enrollment drops. And at a certain point, the board decides, OK. Time to throw in the towel.
But this is not what happened at Paul Quinn College. What happened instead, is this man.
Michael Sorrell: My name is Michael Joseph Sorrell and I am the 34th president of Paul Quinn College.
Sorrell didn’t follow the kind of career path that typically leads to the presidency of an HBCU. He went to college on a basketball scholarship, then he got a law degree and an MBA. He was a business guy and a sports fanatic. The Ivory Tower wasn’t really his thing.
He came to Dallas to work in a fancy law firm downtown, and on Saturdays he would play basketball at the YMCA. A lot of the guys he played with were Paul Quinn alumni. Sorrell remembered reading about the college when it won a small conference basketball championship. But those glory days were long gone.
Sorrell: You know, people would question why folks would go to school there. They’d question why you’d donate money there. And I think that there was a perception that the school wasn’t delivering, and that there weren’t students here that people were particularly high on.
But the guys Sorrell was playing ball with – they were really solid. Smart. Kind. Successful.
Sorrell: And I just thought that, you know, my friends deserved a different message from their alma mater.
And for some reason – he still can’t quite explain why – Sorrell decided that saving Paul Quinn was what he was meant to do.
Now, to help you understand what happened next, here is a little tidbit about Michael Sorrell. When we were talking, he told me that his plans for later in life included being a cabinet secretary, and owning an NBA franchise. He wasn’t sure which order he was gonna do those in, but he’s was sure he was gonna do both of them. Sorrell is, by his own admission, pretty darn cocky. So when he saw what was going down at Paul Quinn, he thought: well, obviously. I’ll just go to the board and tell them I should be president. It was 2002 and he was 35 years old.
Sorrell: And they were like, no. [Laughs]
Instead, they gave him a seat on the board.
Sorrell: I took it and I was not a happy board member.
Four presidents came and went in the five years Sorrell served on the board. And after the last one left in 2007, the board pretty much threw up its hands and said, why the heck not?
On his first day as Paul Quinn’s new president, Sorrell drove onto campus, got out of his car, and looked around.
Sorrell: The entire front of the campus is abandoned buildings. Plants growing on the top of them. It looks like haunted houses. I walked into a room and the room had holes in the wall.
So, imagine this: You’re 40 years old. You’ve never taught a class or chaired a department, much less run a whole school. And then you’re handed the reins to a small, struggling historically black college that everyone thinks is about to fold. What do you do? How do you save a school?
Step one: Get rid of football.
Sorrell: Everyone romanticizes this football notion, what football does for your campus. It wasn’t doing that for this campus. We couldn’t afford it. Right? I mean, listen. That was correct, that’s what we needed to do. And that’s what we did.
Darrell King: It was a uproar.
This is Darrell King. He was a student at Paul Quinn when Sorrell took over.
King: A lot of the students was upset. They was highly frustrated, pissed if you wanna say. Because I mean, it was Dallas, Texas, the home of the Cowboys, one of my favorite teams. And a lot of the students just came for football. I mean that was the sole purpose of going to college was football. And when the opportunity wasn’t there, I mean, the student population just pretty much took a hit.
One year into Sorrell’s presidency the student body was half what it had been four years earlier. The next year, 2009, Paul Quinn lost its accreditation, and even more students defected. The school eventually found a new accrediting body, but by the fall there were only 171 students on campus.
Dexter Evans: A lot of my closest friends were scared.
Dexter Evans was a freshman in 2009.
Evans: We didn’t know what to do. This was the college we had made home and we didn’t know if the doors would be open the next semester.
It was around this time that Michael Sorrell noticed the football field, just sitting there empty. Waiting to be used to send a message that despite all evidence to the contrary, Paul Quinn wasn’t quite dead.
Elizabeth Wattley: Oh god. [Laughs] In the beginning it was rough.
Elizabeth Wattley was working as Paul Quinn’s service learning director when Sorrell called her and told her she had a new job: to turn the school’s football field into an organic farm.
Wattley didn’t know anything about farming, so she turned to Google.
Wattley: What grows best in Dallas? What type of soil do we have?
Students at Paul Quinn are required to work on campus in exchange for lower tuition. So Wattley had a ready supply of labor.
Wattley: The first thing that we would even get from outsiders and everything is, oh, we’re putting the kids back on the field like in the slave days.
In the space between the goal posts, Wattley and her student workers planted rows of sweet potatoes, lettuces, tomatoes and peppers. They set up beehives, built a greenhouse and chicken coops.
Chanson Goodson: So, you know, basic chicken keeping rules, don’t chase after them or make any loud noises, or—
Chanson Goodson is giving students a tour of the coops. Goodson is a junior at Paul Quinn, majoring in legal studies. He wants to be a lawyer.
Goodson: Another fun fact about the chickens is that they, whenever they see me with an apple they’ll just crowd by the door. They’re just adorable.
Goodson grew up here in Highland Hills, so when it came time to choose a college, it made sense to come to Paul Quinn. And honestly, when he showed up on campus, he thought the farm was a little bit strange. The only reason he started working there was because it paid more any other gig on campus.
Goodson: Yeah my first day was, it was pretty, it was pretty enlightening. I’ll say that. It was pretty enlightening. Eight o’clock in the morning in the middle of November, 40 degrees outside, and I had to harvest arugula. It was just a horrible day. [Laughs]
Something started to change in his second semester working at the farm.
Goodson: It’s magical, how it just knocks away stress. Whenever I’m stressed out or, you know, I’m cramming for finals and I just need to get away from just anything book related, I’ll come down to the farm and just, you know, like, weed a row or let the chickens out and just listen to the chickens scratch around and stuff.
The farm’s vegetables go to local restaurants and grocery stores, and to the food service company that supplies the Dallas Cowboys. It’s not a lot of money. Most years, the farm just breaks even.
But as a symbol that the college was reinventing itself? It worked really well. It looked great when potential donors saw Chanson and the other student workers caring for chickens, or harvesting bell peppers. And for a school that needed a story to tell?
Looks matter. And that meant the look of the students, too.
Dexter Evans: Oh man, when you go to college you think you’re going to wear sweats and pajamas, things like that.
When you talk to people about how students at Paul Quinn used to dress, they all mention the pajamas.
Michael Sorrell: People walking around campus with pajamas on, and…
Dexter Evans: You know, pajamas. House shoes. Doo rags.
Darrell King: Hey I’m up, let’s throw some pajamas on, let’s go to class.
Artis Rawlins: It just, it wasn’t presentable. It didn’t look good.
Now, I think it’s worth taking a step back and acknowledging that students wear pajamas on college campuses all over the country. But that wasn’t going to fly at the new Paul Quinn.
Michael Sorrell: We had an issue.
This is President Sorrell again.
Sorrell: I would bring people to campus and the students weren’t presenting themselves in a manner which was consistent with our hopes and our aspirations for them.
What he’s talking about is donors. Remember, he’s a business guy. The school he runs is in bad financial shape. And his main assets – his students – aren’t making the greatest argument for investment.
So he decided to clean them up. He put in place a business casual dress code for all the students. Collared shirts, dress slacks and loafers for men; suits and dresses for women.
Darciea Houston: They said that they had a dress code. And I was thinking huh, that is the weirdest thing. We are paying all this money just to go to this private institution, and you got to tell me what to wear? I just came from a community college! You know?
This is Darciea Houston. Last year, she transferred to Paul Quinn to study health and wellness. When I met her, she was dressed in dark slacks and a blazer.
Houston: I love tennies, I love jogging pants, jeans, you know, hoodies. And business casual pains me. [Laughs]
Freemark: So what happens if they catch you?
Houston: If you’re out of dress code you’ll be more than likely warned, and then after that, you know, you’ll get fined $200.
Houston: Yes, ma’am.
Eighty-four percent of Paul Quinn students are eligible for Pell grants, which basically means they’re low income. Don’t have a lot of extra money for things like clothes. So the school launched a clothing drive in black churches around Dallas. Parishioners donated truckloads of clothes.
[Sounds of students in clothes closet]
This is Paul Quinn’s career clothes closet. It’s a room in the first floor of the administration building. There are racks of lightly used professional clothing, organized by color and type. Also purses, belts, shoes, a wall pinned with diagrams on how to apply office makeup, and a section full of jeans and Carhartts for the students who work on the farm.
Chase Savala: OK but now this is a large in Gap. This is definitely coming with me. Even I can do something with this.
Chase Savala is browsing in the racks with a few friends.
Friend: Who ready to check out?
Savala: You need my rewards card? Yeah, I’m a frequent shopper of the clothes closet. Yes, ma’am.
Friend: Take five items, get five free.
Savala: Yes, ma’am.
Cameron Turner: You can come in and obtain items at the budget of a college student. Which is zero. [Laughs]
This is Cameron Turner.
Turner: I am a student at Paul Quinn College. I am a history major and I’m from New Orleans, Louisiana.
This, by the way, is the introduction you’ll get from every student at Paul Quinn: name, major, hometown.
Turner: When we got to Paul Quinn they would train us on how to introduce ourselves to people. But it’s like the Paul Quinn greeting.
So the point of all these things, of course, is money. This is about taking a school with abandoned buildings and students in pajamas, and turning it into a walking, talking fundraising pitch.
Being on campus, you get the sense that you’re hanging out in a particularly effective company that is totally nailing its employee morale workshops. When President Sorrell showed up, he came up with a new slogan for the school: We Over Me. He instituted a mandatory class called Introduction to Quinnite Servant Leadership, where students learn the school’s guiding principles. He told students they were his partners in fundraising. And almost everyone on campus – students and staff – seems to have bought in.
Here’s Darciea again, talking to me about students who violate the dress code:
Houston: When, you know, you bring donors and people on campus, that can ruin a lot of things. You know, if they look at me and see that, you know, in their mind, that I don’t care about my appearance, then that’s gonna be a problem for the other generations or population that’s coming in after us. So I want to make sure that I’m, you know, doing my part.
And when it came to money, it started working! It really did. Donations rolled in from corporations and wealthy Dallas businesspeople. I met one local real estate magnate – a white guy – who has given Paul Quinn more than $5 million because, basically, he liked Michael Sorrell. These days, the school runs six- and seven-figure surpluses.
Sorrell: We redid the patio, we did the roof, the air conditioning units. We’ve renovated 80 percent of the dormitory. We’ve renovated the library. We surprised everyone by finishing the bathrooms. Which, I don’t know if you guys have been to the bathrooms but, you know, we’re pretty proud of the bathrooms.
When Sorrell took over, he recast the school as a hub of urban entrepreneurship. The deal is this: In addition to the usual academic classes, Paul Quinn will teach you how to dress and give you the clothes, it will show you how to shake hands and introduce yourself the right way. It will teach you the language of board rooms and bank lenders. Basically you get a crash course in how the privileged world works.
While I was at Paul Quinn, I met a student who had been homeless in high school, whose pitch for a ready-to-eat pasta kit company had just won $20,000 in a citywide entrepreneurship competition. I met students who had organized a successful campaign against the city’s planned expansion of the neighborhood landfill. I met a student who played soccer in high school, and when he showed up at Paul Quinn and complained there was no team there, Sorrell gave him a budget and appointed him head soccer coach.
The students I met at Paul Quinn were incredibly impressive.
But there aren’t many of them, partly because of all the students who bailed, and partly because the school doesn’t let students just hang around, coasting through their classes.
Sorrell: The reputation was you could come here, hang out for a while, you know, borrow student loan money ’cause you’re a student, and you know, live off that or not finish, which is horrible, right? I mean, I understand realities but, no. If you’re coming here, you’re expected to go to class. You’re coming here with the intent to graduate.
Freemark: So when you talk about this, are you talking about kicking students out?
Sorrell: I mean, you know, kicking out is such a harsh term, right? [Laughs]
So Sorrell went on the hunt for other students. He looked at a map and asked himself where he could find kids with a lot of potential, who other colleges were missing. And he circled the inner cities of Chicago, Detroit and Brooklyn. And then he got on a plane and showed up in high schools in those cities, with scholarship money to offer and a willingness to knock on doors to talk to kids and their parents. This, by the way, is not standard operating procedure for a college president.
Destiny Modeste met Sorrell when he visited her science high school in Brooklyn. She went home and told her mother, Garlina Meggett, that she had found the college she wanted to go to. Meggett had never heard of Paul Quinn, so she went online.
Garlina Meggett: I saw some silly videos, with some little boy — with some chicken — walking around the campus. And then there was something about the school accreditation that I was concerned about. So I did bring these things up to him, and that’s when he told me about firing the football team, and I’m thinking, like, you had some cajones to do that. And then he was saying all of these things about how the kids need to dream bigger and how Destiny shouldn’t just want to be a geneticist, how she should want to own five or six labs. And that’s what I really loved. I was like, “Geez, I didn’t even think about that, you know, and this is my child.”
The students Sorrell found in the inner cities and brought back to Paul Quinn, they’re changing the school in a way that’s much, much deeper than a farm or a dress code. And they’re the kind of changes that historically black colleges across the country are grappling with.
Announcer: First of all, let’s just introduce Nahydiel as the new president of Delta Alpha Omega.
It’s Tuesday night around 10 p.m., and the four members of Delta Alpha Omega are meeting in a lounge in Paul Quinn’s student union. DAO is a multicultural fraternity, which at Paul Quinn means Latino.
Gio Macias: Game night. Tuesday: Taco Tuesday. So we’ll cook out and make tacos and Hispanic foods.
Fifty years ago, pretty much everyone at Paul Quinn, and at HBCUs across the country, was black. Today, about a quarter of HBCU students are some other race. The biggest growth is coming from Latino students like Eberardo Gutierrez.
Eberardo Gutierrez: People actually get surprised, because when they look at us four, they think of just “the four Mexicans.” But in reality, Max is Dominican and Nahydiel is Puerto Rican. And actually, when you put Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in the same room, they usually don’t get along. So it just happens that in this situation they, they’re both really close friends.
Nahydiel Molina: We were, like, really cool buds…
Eberardo is from Detroit. Gio Macias is from Dallas. Max Liriano and Nahydiel Molina were both recruited by Michael Sorrell from the same high school in Brooklyn. Max says they had never heard of Paul Quinn before. And they weren’t familiar with historically black colleges. But they liked Sorrell’s pitch about opportunity and entrepreneurship.
Max Liriano: It was kind of like one of those things where it’s like, someone comes with an idea and is like, “You know what? Hey, let’s go skydiving.” You’re like, “All right, I’ll do it with you.” You know, we jumped together and you know we just, we took the leap of faith together.
When Gio started at Paul Quinn, there were just nine Hispanic students on campus, including him. But now, their numbers are growing.
Michael Sorrell: Our mantra is, you can be our kind and not be our color. OK?
Sorrell: The reality of it is this. We’re in Texas. If we’re in Texas how would we not have more Hispanics? You would have to actually make a concentrated decision that you were not going to admit Hispanic students for your numbers not to grow in the Hispanic — I just don’t know how that would ever happen.
On my second day at Paul Quinn I met a woman named Leslie Polk. She’s black, she’s from Dallas, and she was actually enrolled at Howard University before her mom got sick and she had to move back home. When she started at Paul Quinn, she was surprised by how many Latino students she saw at the school.
Leslie Polk: That’s a really cool thing, you know? I don’t know. Being an HBCU you wouldn’t expect that, I guess, but I love diversity.
But Leslie was also the only student I met who didn’t seem to fully buy into the narrative of the new Paul Quinn. She told me that she wonders if, in all this talk about kind over color, something was getting lost.
Polk: You lose your dignity if you lose the idea of being an HBCU. And just thinking of Paul Quinn and how it was founded, it was four African American preachers who were trying to provide the slaves with an education. If you lose the identity of being an HBCU, sooner or later that’ll just be passive information. It goes back to our history and how important it is and if we stray away from it then we’ll lose it, our identity.
For Leslie, these questions get to the very heart of what a historically black college is supposed to be, and what it is supposed to do. Howard, she said, taught its students what it meant to be black in America. That’s not really Michael Sorrell’s focus right now.
Sorrell: Look, our goal is very simple. We’re gonna become one of America’s great small colleges. Now, there has never been a school that has gone from where we were, which arguably could be one of the nation’s worst, to one of the nation’s best. Right? So you can’t get there by doing the same old stuff. All right? You’ve gotta do something different.
He sees all of the changes he’s making as stemming directly from Paul Quinn’s legacy as a black college.
Sorrell: What HBCUs were founded to do was to provide an education for students who came from backgrounds of slavery. All right? Didn’t mean that they didn’t evolve, all right? And in my estimation what they are meant to really do is to provide opportunities of education for students who have some type of disadvantage in their background. And here, now, those students tend to be black and brown.
Freemark: What if in 20 years the ratios are reversed? What if they’re everybody?
Sorrell: Then they’re everybody. You know, I’m not really worried about what we lose. I mean, I’m not insecure about this institutional heritage, I’m not insecure about the African American heritage. In fact, I’m so secure about both, that I can welcome others and their heritage as well and I don’t think that that diminishes mine.
Paul Quinn is still tiny, but it’s growing. Sorrell told me that the class coming in this fall will be its biggest in years. More than 250 freshmen are starting. They’ll almost double the size of the school. The students will be more qualified than any Paul Quinn class since 2008, with higher GPAs and higher SAT scores. They’ll be from more parts of the country than ever before. And at this historically black college, 20 percent of them will be Hispanic.
Stephen Smith: Our story on Paul Quinn College was produced by Samara Freemark and Suzanne Pekow.
“The Living Legacy: Black Colleges in the 21st Century” was edited by Catherine Winter and mixed by Craig Thorson. The Web producer is Andy Kruse.
The American RadioWorks team includes Emily Hanford, Ryan Katz, Sasha Aslanian, Peter Clowney, Ellen Guettler, Minna Zhou, and me, Stephen Smith.
We have more on our Web site about the history of HBCUs, including archival photos. That’s at AmericanRadioWorks.org. We’d love to hear what you think of this program. You can find our contact information on the Web site. And while you’re there, you can check out the archive of more than 100 documentary projects. You can also sign up for our weekly education podcast. That’s AmericanRadioWorks.org. You can also find us on Facebook at American.RadioWorks and Twitter at AMRadioWorks.
One note of disclosure: Historian Marybeth Gasman, who appears in this story, receives funding from the Lumina Foundation. And so does American Radioworks.
Support for this program also comes from the Spencer Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This is APM, American Public Media.