HBCU leaders decry waves of bomb threats as federal investigators probe origin

Harris-Stowe State in St. Louis was among the schools to receive a threat on the first day of Black History Month

By: - February 9, 2022 6:30 am

Members of the Class of 2025 at Harris-Stowe State University participate in the Convocation and Rite of Passage Ceremony, an annual tradition that symbolizes HSSU’s commitment to the newest members of its learning community. The ceremony took place on on Aug. 30, 2021 (Photo courtesy of Harris-Stowe State University).

WASHINGTON — Hours before the Southern Poverty Law Center held a virtual panel Tuesday about recent bomb threats made to dozens of historically Black colleges, yet another bomb threat was reported — this one to Spelman College in Georgia.

“This was a racist attack that aims to not only disrupt the start of Black History Month, but the perpetrators, we believe, wanted to send a message that even learning while Black is not safe from hate,” said Lecia Brooks, the chief of staff and culture for the SPLC.

“They clearly underestimated the strength of our treasured centers of learning, whose very existence is rooted in resilience.”

Leaders from five historically Black colleges and universities and an official with the U.S. Department of Education discussed how coordination between the institutions and the federal government could help protect students, faculty and the communities around those campuses.

Nearly 20 HBCUs received bomb threats in the past weeks, with more than a dozen on Feb. 1, the first day of Black History Month. That includes Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis.

“Throughout history, we have seen threats aimed at Black men and women in their homes, at Black students in our classrooms, and at Black children on the playground,” U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., said in a statement.

McBath, who graduated from an HBCU, Virginia State University, said that “these hateful threats will not oppress our drive towards excellence.”

The FBI is currently investigating the bomb threats made to HBCU institutions as hate crimes.

Michelle Asha Cooper, the acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, said that the department was working with the Justice Department, FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security to investigate the threats.

“These threats are reminiscent of the civil rights era,” she said. “Bomb threats against Black people is an unfortunate part of America’s history.”

Multiple media outlets have reported that the FBI has identified six juveniles of interest in the calls made to HBCUs.

Zachary Faison Jr., the president of Edward Waters University in Florida, said that he was concerned to learn that the threats could stem from young people, and added that he’s worried that children are not properly being taught about the history of racism in America.

“When I thought about young people, I’m thinking about people that don’t really understand or appreciate the historicity and the pains to African Americans in this country, particularly historically Black colleges and universities,” he said.

Brooks agreed and said that “we are seeing this more and more from our elected officials at the highest level, and those responses from our elected officials are having an impact on young people.”

Republicans at the state and congressional level have introduced or passed legislation to ban the teachings of critical race theory, an academic subject in higher education that has been around since the 1970s that looks at how race and law intersect. It’s not a subject taught in public schools.

Felecia Nave, the president of Alcorn State University in Mississippi, said that following the threats, her priority was students’ well-being.

“I’m extremely saddened for our students who continue to be traumatized, in what is truly unprecedented times,” she said.

Nave said that when she talked to students, she also talked to them about solutions and how they can help their community.

“They are disappointed, they are traumatized,” she said. “They’re resilient, and they are resolved to continue to move forward and to make it known that we won’t be threatened.”

She said they talked about voting rights and how it’s a constant struggle to fight for the right to vote and how important it is to educate people in their community about when certain legislation comes up, such as critical race theory.

“They’re being that next generation of civil rights leaders that our community is gonna need,” she said.

Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in Louisiana, said that while his university has not yet received a bomb threat, the institution is no stranger to racist threats.

“I think that this has been a wake-up call for us,” he said. “Let’s lean into the history and deal with those issues and then say, how do we learn from that and apply it in this new context?”

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.