North Carolina Senate Bill 873, named the “Access to Affordable College Education Act,” is a wolf in sheep’s clothing designed to bankrupt five of the state’s universities. By reducing tuition to Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, UNC Pembroke, Winston-Salem State and Western Carolina to $500 per semester, it renders them unsustainable as four-year institutions and foretells their transformation into community colleges.
But Bill 873 also has another purpose, which is to rename four of the five campuses. That goal is presumptive, ignorant, and, frankly, racist. The bill calls for a study of “the impact of each university’s name on the institution’s academic strength, enrollment, and diversity. The Board of Governors may make recommendations on any potential changes to the legislature.”
Three of the campuses named in the bill are Historically Black Universities; one, Pembroke, served primarily Native Americans and African Americans. Two other HBUs, North Carolina Central and A&T, have been spared, and Western Carolina, a historically white university, is thrown in to disguise the bill’s racist intentions. The state’s HBUs began as Jim Crow schools, funded by the state to train black citizens. They educated women alongside men and, despite the shame of segregation, became the best state-funded system of black education in the nation.
What would the Board of Governors find wrong with the current names of our HBUs, and how might it correct them? At first glance, they seem, well, too geographical. Like Appalachian State University and East Carolina University, the names of Winston-Salem State, Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, and UNC-Pembroke convey their locations. They also represent a source of pride to the state’s minority populations who attended them. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with the names of the state’s HBUs. So, why change?
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The only possible reason to rename historically black universities is to sever them from their African American heritage to attract more white students.
In case anyone doubts that assertion, there is a simple test to prove me wrong: make sure that the new names reflect, rather than obliterate, their heritage. Winston-Salem State could become Simon Atkins State, in honor of its brilliant African American founder. Or Fayetteville State can take the name Charles Chestnutt University, recalling the renowned black author, perhaps the most illustrious person ever to come from that city.
UNC system president Margaret Spellings and the Board of Governors must speak out against this bill because it legislates failure for the universities involved. But just as importantly, they must condemn the transparent racism behind it. Erasing the state’s black past is the ultimate act of white supremacy.
Gilmore is a history professor at Yale University.