Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s statements about Historically Black Colleges and Universities have stirred up controversy. After a meeting with HBCU presidents, DeVos released a statement intending to praise the schools. In the statement, Devos said HBCUs “started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education.” She went on to say, “HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice.” The backlash came from people who believed DeVos either ignored or was unaware about the historical context behind the founding of historically black institutions.
DeVos’s meeting with HBCU presidents preceded President Trump signing an executive order on HBCUs. The president of Morehouse College released a statement about his meetings at the White House. He corrected DeVos’s comments, but didn’t discredit her intentions. “Slavery has a long shadow and the school choice debate was not at all alive under the menacing loom of that shadow at emancipation,” he said. “So, secretary DeVos misstated that, but that does not mean that she should be diminished or dismissed.”
The Higher Education Act of 1965 defines an HBCU as “any historically black college or university established prior to 1964 whose principle mission was and is the education of black Americans…” Two of the oldest HBCUs, both located in Pennsylvania are Lincoln University and Cheney University. They were founded when slavery in the United States was still legal.
Since the backlash, DeVos has adjusted the language she uses to describe HBCUs. “HBCUs remain at the forefront of opening doors that had previously been closed to so many,” she tweeted in an attempt to clarify her previous comments.
“HBCUs weren’t a choice. They were the only options for students of color,” Camille Myrie, a senior at Howard University, said.
“Institutions like Harvard, Emory, Penn State and Georgetown did not accept nor welcome black students. To imply that those students had a choice is not only ignorant, but extremely disrespectful.”
Tensions have been high at Howard University, where students have been protesting since DeVos visited campus on February 9. She met with Dr. Wayne Frederick, university president, and two students. When the campus got wind of the meeting, students took to social media to express their displeasure. In the weeks that have followed, students have held town hall meetings and demonstrations to make their voices heard.
On February 21, a message was spray-painted on the ground in the middle of campus. It read “Welcome to the Trump Plantation. Overseer: Wayne A.I. Frederick.” Other messages, including “Wayne Frederick doesn’t care about black people” were written on campus buildings in chalk. In response, President Frederick sent a letter to the Howard community encouraging free speech, but condemning the vandalism.
Since Vice President Pence broke the tie in the senate that allowed DeVos to be confirmed to Trump’s cabinet, her time as education secretary has been marred by controversy. During the same week she visited Howard University, protesters attempted to block her from entering a Washington D.C. middle school. Dozens of parents, activists, and teachers gathered to show support for public schools, according to the Washington Post.