HBCUs are Havens for Young Black Minds. And COVID Is In the Way

Jul 7, 2020

Attending a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) is not quite the same as attending college elsewhere. There’s a lot of history and culture that goes with the HBCU experience – and that can be surprisingly intimidating for young African-American intellectuals.

The only thing scarier is the prospect of not being on campus.

And that is what students at Clinton College in Rock Hill are facing, thanks to the coronavirus. Juwan Williams is one of them.

Juwan Williams, a student at Clinton College, says he'll miss not being on-campus this fall. COVID has closed on-site classes until at least 2021.
Credit Provided by Juwan Williams

Juwan Williams is easy to talk to for a really long time, even on Zoom. He’s marooned at his home outside of Philadelphia for the foreseeable future. That might not be so bad if he didn’t want so much to come back to Rock Hill.

But the pandemic has led to the campus of Clinton College, Rock Hill’s only HBCU being shut down for in-person classes this fall. Williams is studying there to be a pastor, like he always wanted to be, but like the rest of his schoolmates, he’ll have to take his classes entirely online during the fall semester and keep hope alive that he can return to South Carolina in January.

At 26, Williams is a few things a lot of people his age are not. He’s still an underclassman in college; he’s got old-man wisdom; and he’s encyclopedic and catholic (not Catholic, catholic) about history and philosophy.

If you ask him, he’ll tell you how not-confident he is. Or, was. If you listen to him, you’ll never be able to figure that out. He’s candid and direct without being rude, in the way that most pastors (or at least pastors-to-be) are when they air out their opinions.

He’s a lot more confident in himself now, but Williams had to fight for that. He says Clinton has given this to hm, through a blend of welcoming gestures, responsibilities, and increasing expectations that push him to do a great job at school.

The environment is a far cry from his first college – a mostly white, conservative evangelical school near where he grew up that we won’t name here. But while that college’s official statement on racism and discrimination is adamant that it does not put up with such a thing, Williams says that his first semester there was marred by racist bullying that would be expected in the 1950s, maybe, but not in 2012.

So he left that school. And then went back, briefly. He really wanted to be a pastor, after all. Part of his curriculum required volunteer work, and his was as a youth minister at a church that had one well-connected member – the mother of the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Morehouse is a major ship in the HBCU harbor. It’s the kind of school that Williams craved to go to. And wouldn’t you know it, that well-connected mom approached Williams, told him he looked “like a Morehouse man,” gave him an application on the spot, and told him she’d call her son about it the next morning.

Williams didn’t send the application in. He didn’t realize the chance he’d been given, mostly, he says, because he was not confident enough in himself to walk around proud-chested on a campus full of some of the brightest young Black students in the country.

Now here’s what to know about all that – Juwan Williams knows he’s smart in general company. He was just worried that he wouldn’t be smart enough to be in the same league as African-American scholars who knew way more about Black history and Black culture than he did.

See, the generally well-off suburb of Philly where he grew up, Cheltenham, afforded him a life where he didn’t have to think much about being Black, he says. He has a lot of White friends and didn’t see much in the way of overt racism or bigotry growing up. He just went to school and learned what everyone else learned – like, say, the Roman Empire or the history of Ancient Greece.

But not about Carthage, for example. Nor about thinkers like W.E.B. DuBois or Harold Cruse. And not knowing about Black culture and Black history intimidated him.

Williams will say that he is “still assimilating to Black culture,” but he’ll also say that Clinton College has rocketed his confidence level. Enough to where he feels like he could hold his own on a campus like Morehouse.  

Schools like Clinton can be lifelines for sharp young minds that don’t have the luxury of living in a good environment or of a family that knows how to tap into potential, says the school’s president, Dr. Lester McCorn. McCorn himself grew up a homeless teen, but found his way through college with a lot of help from people who believed in him. He says that many f students who enter Clinton College come from disadvantaged backgrounds like his, where they don’t feel safe being home. The college campus, he says, is a haven for kids like these.

McCorn, therefore, is unhappy to have to shut the campus down for the fall. He says he gets frequent messages from students saying they really want to be back. And he in return says he wants to “throw our arms around them, but we can’t.”

The subtext is that nurturing high-octane Black minds – especially when born to disadvantage – can be delicate going. And stripping those young minds of the on-campus experience, with its inuring of Black culture and the importance of developing a surrogate forever-family, breaks McCorn’s heart.

Though Juwan Williams doesn’t come from the unsafe environment some of Clinton’s students come from, he ‘s heartbroken not to be back too. He misses being pushed, even if he’s gotten good at pushing himself.

But Williams does plan to stay enrolled (and online) through the abbreviated fall semester.

Clinton will offer classes only online and wrap the semester at Thanksgiving, McCorn says.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan.