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Nothing New Under The Sun

HBCUs faculty and professors in Georgia detail how their respective schools have participated in politics presently and historically as the 2020 election approaches.

Faculty at historically black colleges and universities in Georgia know that the history of their institutions are rooted in politics. They see that as the backdrop as they and their students confront the most important election of their lives.

HBCUs are continuing that history this year with efforts to educate their students and get them to vote. Here’s a look at Georgia HBCUs’ history when it comes to mobilizing voters.

The Past

Clark Atlanta University has long had a politically active student body, even before 1988 when Clark College and Atlanta University had officially merged. “Atlanta University and its faculty were deeply involved in politics,” said Clark Atlanta University political science professor William Boone.

William Boone

History professors routinely held sessions at the local YMCA to help inform students on how to vote. Many participated in political campaigns during the 1950s and 1960s — both Atlanta University and Clark College had faculty members that were active in Georgia’s state legislature.

But, of course, the fight for racial equality goes back much farther than the 1950s. Most public HBCUs only exist because of the 1890 Morrill Act that required states, to set aside land for the creation of all black colleges in the vein of “separate but equal.”

“Historically, [Savannah State University] was set up and established because Black people could not go to the University of Georgia,” Bowden said. “We were the oldest public historically black college or university in Georgia.”

Founded by Gen. Richard Wright Sr., Savannah State provided access to Black Americans whose options were otherwise very limited.

The Present

According to the Pew Research Center, Georgia’s Black eligible voters saw the largest percentage point increase, five points, out of any other racial and ethnic group in the 2018 gubernatorial election.

That combats what Savannah State University political science professor Geoffrey Bowden says is the “biggest issue” among voters: turnout.

Rhonda McCoy

Rhonda McCoy, an information curriculum specialist at Paine College, says her school has always encouraged the campus community to vote and to check their registrations and voter status.

“We have had good relationships with politicians and have even had some of our Paine College faculty and staff run for political office,” she said. “We have served as a polling location for the community.”

Each of Georgia’s historically black colleges and universities have led initiatives for students and faculty to vote on campus, despite the pandemic.

Part of preparing students to enter the political realm requires faculty to teach political science in the immediate context of their institution.

Meigan Fields

As a political science professor at Fort Valley State University, Meigan Fields understands the rather unique position her institution holds as she trains students because of its location in relation to its institutional peers.

“In addition to offering contemporary courses designed to motivate students to engage in lectures, research and analysis on political issues, our students have hands-on experiences,” she said. “They accept the challenge and responsibility to serve as the pulse for political consciousness in the rural community where the university is nestled.”

Despite the historical legacy of repressing Black voters, HBCUs continue to work toward a future where every Black voter can exercise their constitutional right. HBCUs’ efforts are clear when graduates like Stacey Abrams (Spelman College), the first Black woman to win a major party nomination for Georgia’s gubernatorial race, are a hope and role model for many voters and young activists.

Next: Georgia faces one of the more unique election cycles in its history this year. Here’s how to make your voice heard.