An Open Letter to Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi

Black History, Education, Politics, racism

Dear Governor Barbour,
It was with profound regret that I read in the Commercial Appeal about your budget proposal that would result in the closing of three colleges, two of them historically African-American. I cannot say that I was surprised, but I was deeply saddened. You have stated that the state of Mississippi faces a formidable budget crisis. I am sure that all states do during this sad time in our nation’s history. But a state with such a history of educational deprivation as Mississippi can hardly afford to find economy through the closing of school doors and the shutting off of opportunity. You have said that it is unfair to expect the taxpayers of Mississippi to support eight institutions of higher education. I would tend to agree, but the reason that so many institutions had to be established was also unfair. In case you have forgotten how we reached this point, let me review. The Reconstruction-era legislature of Mississippi voted not to admit Blacks to the University of Mississippi, and soon thereafter, Alcorn College (one of the schools you have proposed closing) was founded on the site of an old Presbyterian college. This decision guaranteed that separate education would be required for Black students. A number of Black institutions were founded at this time by Northern churches, but by the time of World War I, these were falling out of favor with white Southerners, who did not want Blacks to receive an academic curriculum, but rather one based in agriculture and vocational work, as suggested by Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee. From that point on, Southern states worked to bring the bulk of Black education under the control of state government. The Baptist-supported Jackson College was purchased by the state in 1940, and Mississippi Vocational College (now Mississippi Valley, another school marked for closing) was founded in 1950. State control over Black higher education wreaked havoc with struggling Black church schools-all but a few could not survive economically, so Natchez College, Prentiss Institute, Saints Junior College, Southern Christian Institute, Campbell College, Baptist Industrial College, Okolona Industrial College and Mississippi Industrial College all closed between the 1940’s and today. Therefore, bad decisions of the past led to Blacks being required to be in separate colleges from whites, and that those colleges would not be private and church-related, but rather publicly funded. Now we have reached the point at which the majority of Black students no longer wish to abandon their institutions and attend historically-white colleges. Years of segregation and discrimination have convinced them that there is no point in continuing the folly of trying to make integration work with people who have no desire to see it work. As for my mother’s alma mater, Mississippi State College for Women (Reneau University), which you have also proposed closing, it was founded for similar reasons as those above. The state’s new land-grant college, Mississippi A & M, was founded in 1878 for men only. This unusual decision necessitated a nearby school for women be founded. While men and women should have been admitted to Mississippi A & M (now Mississippi State) from the beginning, they were not, and now women are proud of the fine legacy of their school and do not want to merge with Mississippi State.
If the concern is strictly one of budget, it is strange that you made no mention of, or decision regarding, the unusually-large number of junior colleges in the state of Mississippi. They undoubtedly cost the state a great deal of money, are often located close to each other, and are also often close to the four-year schools. Wouldn’t it make sense to bring them under the control of the various four-year colleges to cut down on administrative costs? This would probably save far more money than what you are proposing.
And finally, even if consolidating some colleges were a sensible answer, I would have to take issue with the schools that are being consolidated. If we were going to merge Mississippi Valley State with another institution, why would we merge it with Jackson State, more than a hundred miles to the south, when it could be so easily merged with Delta State, no more than 50 miles away in Cleveland. Such a University of the Delta could be an economic boon to the area. But could it be that you, Governor Barbour, still would rather see Blacks go to school with Blacks and whites with whites?
I know that the decisions that you and the legislature have to make will be hard ones, but I have reviewed how we got to this point. For better or for worse, decisions were made to separate the races and genders in Mississippi higher education, and people have gotten used to that setup. It is unfair to force the victims of those bad decisions of the past to now be victimized again, with the loss of their schools, traditions and heritage.

Yours Truly,
John M. Shaw