- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

PETERSBURG, Va. — In her four years at Virginia State University, Tracey Gaddy has befriended people from India and Guatemala, black students as dark as she is, and others with skin as white as it comes.

At the same time, her historically black school — chartered when free blacks in Virginia had virtually nowhere else to get an education — has nourished the 21-year-old from Charlotte, N.C., and given her a place where she feels people uniquely understand her, accept her and want to see her succeed.

For Miss Gaddy, the 93 percent-black student body offered the perfect combination of diversity and familiarity.

Her friend and fellow 2003 grad, Sharee Hines of Clinton quietly disagrees. She would like to have seen the school look a little more like the real world.

“My thinking then was, ‘Let me stick to what I know.’ Now sometimes I wish I had more of a mix,” says Miss Hines, 22, who is headed to George Washington University for graduate school. “But at the same time, this is your home.”

For the roughly 105 historically black U.S. colleges and universities, largely in the South, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision permitting schools to continue carefully crafting diverse campuses isn’t expected to have an impact. But it would be a mistake to say they aren’t affected by the drive for diversity.

Some, like Atlanta’s Spelman College, a women’s school that is 97 percent black, take diversity it as it comes — largely in religious and geographic differences.

Others have begun actively recruiting nonblack students.

Norfolk State University, where the student population is about 88 percent black, opened a multicultural affairs office about four years ago. To attract Latino students, the school sponsors a Caribbean street festival in downtown Norfolk and holds a salsa-meringue dance contest on campus, on top of regular high school recruiting.

In Nashville, Fisk University has a certificate program with computer training, English classes and resume-writing tips for Hispanic students. The hope is that word will get around: The 825-student school, 86 percent black, welcomes Latinos.

They are also sought at Texas Southern University, the country’s third-largest historically black institution, with nearly 10,000 students. The Houston school recruits heavily along the Mexican border and offers scholarships to Hispanic students.

For largely white schools with histories of racial exclusion, diversity means welcoming, even inviting, descendants of generations of shunned students.

But Alvin Thornton, associate provost and political science professor at Howard University in Washington, says racial definitions of diversity can’t be the standard for historically black schools in the same way they often are for majority-white institutions.

“Racial diversity is not a starting point for historically black schools,” Mr. Thornton says. “At Howard, for example, the diversity goal is in terms of offerings, removing the one-dimensional curriculum that students were exposed to years ago.

“If you view the mission and goal of the school in its richest way, it reduces itself not to skin color, but to shaping students who are committed to the elimination of oppression and guaranteeing equal opportunity and access,” he says.

Achieving diversity may mean competing with the country’s elite schools for the most talented and ambitious students, as Howard, Spelman and Hampton universities do. Or it may mean keeping the doors to college virtually wide open to give every high school graduate a chance, as Virginia State and Texas Southern do.

In both scenarios, school leaders see encouraging different kinds of diversity as part of their mission.

Virginia State President Eddie R. Moore Jr. says he wants to increase his absolute numbers — not necessarily the percentage — of nonblack students. The Petersburg school about 25 miles south of Richmond has started recruiting by mail in Texas and California, and has seen a rise in Latino enrollment. This year’s valedictorian was a Northern Virginia woman from Honduras, he says.

The diversity efforts fit with the school’s historic mission, to serve first the “industrial class,” which Mr. Moore interprets today to include everyone.

Hampton University President William Harvey says his goal is to maintain a black majority of 85 percent to 88 percent. A white population of 12 percent to 15 percent, he says, creates an integrated, diverse, stimulating environment of talented students while preserving the historically black soul of the school.

“The historic mission of Hampton is to train leaders in the African-American community,” Mr. Harvey says.

For Miss Gaddy, Virginia State’s mostly black atmosphere offered something that she thinks the majority-white schools recommended to her in high school couldn’t — a feeling of total inclusion.

Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race,” says historically black colleges have a tradition of being open to everyone but tend to attract students who know what it’s like to be denied opportunities.

“It’s about being at the center of the education experience, as opposed to being on the margin of it,” Miss Tatum says.

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