In the last four years, Jaylin Smith has made Mississippi Valley State University, a historically Black college, her home. She’s spent her time there surrounded by mentors, friends, and colleagues who understand her and her identity as a Black woman better than she could have hoped for at any other institution of higher learning.
But Smith never thought her beloved HBCU, a safe haven for young, Black scholars, would become the target of terroristic threats.
“When we go into different environments where our counterparts reside or work, we expect these stereotypes, we more easily expect to be threatened,” Smith, the vice president of the school’s Student Government Association, told VICE News. “But nobody expects to be threatened at home.”
“There’s definitely a sore spot being in a place and environment where my blackness and culture is celebrated,” she continued.
Mississippi Valley State University was one of more than 20 historically Black colleges and universities that received phone calls between Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 threatening to bomb and carry out other acts of violence on their campuses. At Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida, one caller spent 20 minutes detailing their violent plans: that at least seven duffel bags with C4 explosives were left at the Florida campus, and someone armed with a gun would attack the school sometime around lunchtime Monday.
The caller also claimed to be a neo-Nazi and a member of Atomwaffen Division, a group infamous for its training videos at so-called hate camps, according to local police.
“I missed several classes today because someone didn't value my Black education.”
Although no explosives or harmful materials were ultimately found at any of the campuses, the damage was already done: Several schools were forced into lockdown for hours after the threat was called in, while others cancelled classes or moved to remote learning to ensure everyone’s safety. Especially for seniors just months from graduation, the threats interrupted their studies and distracted them. But most of all, they served as a stark reminder that race will be a major factor in how the world sees them—regardless of where they are.
“I missed several classes today because someone didn't value my Black education. I have a million things going on,” said Smith, who’s expecting to graduate in the spring. “I'm trying to decide if I'm going to go to grad school, if I'm going to go into a career. And then to see this happen, it's a brutal realization of the cruel world that I'm about to step into.”
The FBI has now identified at least six persons of interest possibly responsible for the threatening phone calls made to these campuses.
HBCUs exist as the direct result of America’s racism. In the mid-1800s, when Black prospective students were denied entry into the country’s colleges because of their race, Black educators stepped up and created institutions of their own. During the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, the then-newly established U.S. Freedman’s Bureau would help fund the creation of several Black colleges that still exist today, like Howard University in D.C., Spelman College in Georgia, and Fisk University in Tennessee.
The legacies of these institutions have since reached legendary status. Some of the greatest Black minds and artists in American history, like W.E.B. DuBois, Thurgood Marshall, Spike Lee, and Chadwick Boseman, began their journeys at HBCUs.
Angela Smith, Jaylin’s mother, said she was so proud that her daughter decided to go to a school that wouldn’t water down her history and amplify her interests and talents. But now, even though she’s just a 20-minute car ride away, she hates that she has to be worried about her daughter’s safety.
“I definitely felt certain sickness in the pit of my stomach because I could not get to my child to keep her safe,” Angela Smith said. “This really saddens me because it makes me wonder where she is truly safe. Her HBCU is her second home. And to see that individuals are still being evil in these times hurts me to my core. It is a slap in the face to the progress that has been made.”
The racist threats in the past week are particularly disturbing as they came during Black History Month, a time to celebrate Black joy and a shared past. That history is also currently under attack in the U.S. Republicans in states like Florida, Tennessee, and Oklahoma are trying to ban teaching critical race theory in schools, which would deny all students the full scope and understanding of the last 400 years of the Black experience in America.
“Black History Month means a lot to us. There's a lot of activists that go to school, a lot of behind the scenes action that goes on here for the occasion,” said Ny’Lasia Brown, a freshman Organizational Management major at Howard University in Washington, D.C., which received a bomb threat sometime before 3 a.m. on Monday. “It's just like, when can we finally just have our own moment? You know, we have history. It's only a few days. Can we please just experience this Black joy for once?”
For at least eight HBCUs, including Howard, Spelman, and Xavier University in Louisiana, Monday and Tuesday were the second time in a month they’ve received an anonymous bomb threat. On Jan. 5, these schools had to lockdown and evacuate campuses while authorities sweeped school buildings for potential dangers.
“What's really alarming is how back-to-back it's been,” Brown said. “The first one they cleared fairly quickly, but me and my friends were really nervous this second time around. Like, ‘OK, what's going on this time?’ We couldn’t help but think to ourselves, ‘What can we actually do other than sit here?’”
Jaquerius Howard, a senior at Alcorn State University in Mississippi, was expected to take action. As the president of the school’s Student Government Association, he woke up around 8 a.m. Tuesday to two missed calls, one from the provost and the other, the vice president of student affairs.
When Howard called them back, they quickly got him up to speed on the anonymous bomb threat, which prompted an immediate campuswide lockdown. School buildings were shut down as emergency responders with bomb-sniffing dogs scoured the campus for anything suspicious.
“Although the threat was cleared eventually and we’ve since transitioned back to in-person classes, many of the students I’ve talked to have these threats in the back of their minds,” Howard said. “Some of us have even been hesitant to go back to the classroom.”
Attending college in the last two years has already been tumultuous. The transitioning between remote and in-person learning and social distancing during a pandemic has left students exhausted and missing normalcy. The bomb threats only added to that burden.
“A lot of students come to college trying to escape certain things back home, hoping to find a new fresh start,” Howard said. “They come here to find comfort, and then you’re getting threatened n the campus you came to to feel safe. It impacts your mental health in a significant way.”
“Can we please just experience this Black joy for once?”
Jamera Forbes, a senior and student government president at Morgan State University, said it sometimes feels like all of the elements are working against her and her colleagues. She, and her Vice President, Dai’Shona Jones, told VICE News they’ve been in constant communication with the student body and faculty about the bomb threats this week.
“We've just been pushed through so much in these last two years, with just COVID-19. And now these bomb threats, it's just a major setback for students as they try to get back to normal,” Forbes said. “It’s like people work constantly to try and knock us down or find ways to hold us back or find ways to mess with our mental health.”
Still, Black scholars are trying their best to stay optimistic in the face of distress. All of the students said their schools have been communicative throughout the process. Some schools like Howard have scheduled special town halls to keep parents and students in the know and give them a chance to ask questions.
“With resilience, which is what Morgan taught me, all of these obstacles coming our way, they're not going to succeed,” Forbes said, referring to the people responsible for the threats. “At the end of the day, Morgan is going to be here, HBCUs are going to be here. We're still going to have this family environment where we can rely on each other and have each other at all times.”
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