On the heels of a scathing rebuke from members of Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus over Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s plans to build a municipal jail in Baltimore City with funds reserved for higher ed capital projects, Hogan has withdrawn his $480 million proposal and now supports new learning facilities at six state universities, including new buildings at Morgan State University, Coppin State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.
The work of the black caucus and its reaction to the jail proposal was bittersweet. Many of the legislators stood in the state capitol in Annapolis and raised the kind of hell reminiscent of lawmakers like Parren Mitchell, Verda Welcome and Harry Cole. But, their work has revealed an unintended consequence. Months after a federal court judge ruled that Maryland’s proposal to remedy its illegal, separate-but-equal system of higher education for black and white students was inadequate and lacking specifics, black lawmakers have now helped schools like the University of Maryland — Baltimore County and the Southern Maryland Education Center to stay ahead of the four black colleges in presentation and appeal to potential students.
This help, and its unintended effect, is the latest chapter in an unseen but growing narrative of the caucus’ hands-off approach to the University of Maryland System’s duplication of signature HBCU programs, and the thousands of students and appropriation dollars HBCUs lost over the years as a result. In the years leading up to the filing of the lawsuit most black lawmakers were aware of the state’s predatory engagement with HBCUs, but did not publicly advocate for higher ed officials to obey the law, or to ensure racial equity.
Some legislators were privately supportive of the lawsuit, and others negotiated with former Governor Martin O’Malley in efforts to bring increased funding to the HBCUs as the case moved towards a decision in favor of the plaintiffs. Advocates like Senator Joan Carter Conway have publicly condemned the state’s stubbornness on HBCU development and has authored bills to counteract its impact, But it is the public emphasis on injustice, the good old-fashioned rabblerousing in the doors of the state house, that would have played a major role in building public awareness and support for the lawsuit, which now stands as a towering precedent for other states now scrambling to undo their decades of discrimination as a result of its outcome.
All four of the state HBCUs — Bowie State, Coppin State, Morgan State and UMES, have been essential partners in the state’s industrial and economic fortunes for nearly 150 years. They all serve as development hubs for the state’s historic and contemporary brain trust on issues impacting black Marylanders, and each serves as an economic engine within the community where it is stationed.
But save for a handful of black college graduates and a white federal judge, there would be little to no record of public advocacy on behalf of these institutions when it comes preserving their constitutional right to grow within the context of a free marketplace, defined by race-neutral opportunities for all Marylanders.
So it is difficult to see these legislators, all of whom are genuine in their care for black communities throughout the state and their responsibility in representing their interests, celebrate a political victory that helps white institutions and higher ed outposts continue to outpace HBCUs in capital outlay and offerings. Yes, three HBCUs will get new buildings, but they remain at least 5–7 buildings behind every other predominantly white campus in the state, which now attracts the lion’s share of black high school graduates who look to matriculate at home.
And they remain steps behind white schools because black legislators didn’t speak up and speak out to preempt a historic lawsuit, and avoided doing so while it played out in the courts with the nation watching.
Obviously, politics doesn’t work as easily as the choice between standing in the public square on behalf of HBCU equity, versus sitting silently in house chambers and subcommittees. Support for any one issue on any given day can cost you votes and legislative clout for the rest a political career.
Morgan State President David Wilson was the only higher education leader who spoke publicly on the jail proposal, and said it was the “wrong symbolism” for Maryland’s legislative priorities. His remarks against the governor obviously set a tone for the black caucus on Hogan’s perceived lack of sensitivity for minorities in the city and throughout the state — a position that is much easier to take in opposition to a jail, when made against the backdrop of a lawsuit to eliminate Jim Crow-tinged higher ed policy.
That wrong symbolism extends to our black lawmakers, who missed the opportunity years ago to lead on a social justice issue that only in the last few year has fully revealed itself nationally in the forms of campus racism against black students, and efforts to merge and close HBCUs in states throughout the south.
If a new jail is deserving of black legislative voice, then certainly black students learning in an illegally-established system of higher education was just as worthy, if not more. It’s just too bad that politics is that complex, because who knows how it may have benefitted Maryland’s HBCUs, and the nation, if our officials had acted differently years ago.