There are HBCUs that are predominantly white. Why is that?
If a high school junior interested in attending an HBCU heads to Google to research, they will find more than 100 schools whose history they can dive into. They might expect to read about Howard University, Spelman College, and Hampton University, but there are several schools that are less familiar to most people.
What they may be most surprised at is that there are two schools that are predominantly White but still classified as HBCUs.
Two schools in West Virginia, Bluefield State College and West Virginia State University, have mostly White student bodies. And not just by slim majorities—Bluefield State is 90% White, and West Virginia State is 75% White.
How did that happen? It was a result of opportunities opening and closing for Black Americans.
In 1895, the Bluefield Colored Institute was established to educate Black coal miners and their families. The college opened primarily to train teachers, and by 1929, Bluefield had produced more than 300 Black teachers as well as physicians, businesspeople, and pharmacists. The first president, Hamilton Hatter, was born into slavery and received an education at Bates College in Maine. Hatter oversaw the building of dormitories on the four-acre campus, which led to a close-knit community that would produce a robust alumni association.
“We had football, baseball, track, tennis, the whole thing,” alumnus Russell Manns told NPR’s Code Switch. “We had the whole deal. You couldn’t move on this campus from Wednesday through Saturday … with people coming back to be here for all the festivities. The fraternities and sororities and things, they had things going on.”
In 1954, legal segregation was shot down with Brown v. Board of Education. Black students had more options for education, and many began leaving the economically depressed West Virginia. At the same time, White World War II veterans benefited from the G.I. Bill, which afforded them free and low-cost education and housing. Whites in the region began attending Bluefield, and from there the racial makeup of the school began to flip.
Wendell G. Hardway became the school’s first White president, chosen by the state legislature in 1966. All of the faculty members he chose to hire were White, and by 1967, only 30% of teachers at the college were Black.
Bluefield was not spared from the activism and empowered Black voices during this era. Students made demands of Hardway, including his resignation. He refused to step down. The strife reached a crescendo when a bomb exploded in the college gymnasium. No one was hurt, and a Black student was indicted for the bombing, although charges were dropped. In the wake of the bombing, Hardway closed the school’s dorms. The residences were a defining part of the school’s Black student community, and the closing marked a turning point from Bluefield’s history as a Black residential college to a White commuter school.
Despite its racial composition—only 8% of students are Black—Bluefield still qualifies for funding as an HBCU, since it served primarily Black students before 1964. The same holds true for West Virginia State University.
Among Bluefield’s notable alumni are several current state legislators in West Virginia. The first Black woman to serve in that body, Elizabeth Simpson Drewry, was elected in 1950.
Bluefield’s website glosses over the school’s tumultuous history. “Over time, changes in society and industry brought changes to the school,” the school’s “Heritage” page reads. “After the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawed school segregation across the nation, the combination of high educational quality and low tuition costs at Bluefield State began attracting students of European descent, a trend that has continued for decades.” There is no mention of the bombing or the Civil Rights Era tensions.
“Even today, Bluefield State’s level of racial diversity is twice the state average,” the website says. That is indeed the case—Bluefield’s Black constituency is twice the 4% of Black residents of West Virginia.
The school’s alumni association, however, is mostly Black, and although it grows smaller and smaller each year, the graduates still come together to reminisce about a once tight-knit educational community. Bluefield State College may never be predominantly Black again, but its history deserves to be remembered.