Diversity and inclusion in higher education is about understanding cultural dynamics and moving beyond simple tolerance to embracing and celebrating the rich dimensions of our collective culture. Diversity efforts involve more than race, gender and sexual orientation and must include our ability to embrace the educational needs of each student.
I had the opportunity to experience homecomings this fall at West Virginia University and West Virginia State University, my two alma maters. Both homecomings were celebrations of past and present realities and reflected our racial history. The obvious legacy of African-American connections at State and the lack of historical inclusion at WVU were striking. As West Virginia continues to move toward a more diverse society it is useful to examine our shared past.
These two West Virginia Land Grant institutions were the result of separate Morrill Acts. President Abraham Lincoln signed the first Morrill Act in 1862. WVU was created under this Act "in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life."
Because of the racial realities of our nation, a second Morrill Act was passed in 1890 that was primarily directed toward the former Confederate states. The second Morrill Act required each state to either show that race was not a college admissions criterion or, in the alternative, to designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color. West Virginia State was created under this second legislation. The goals of these acts were to educate our citizens in a society separated by race. Due to this history, West Virginia's diversity conversation in higher education is built on the legacy of West Virginia State University.
Partly because of the second Morrill Act, the first 25 years of the 20th century was a remarkable time of intellectual development for people of color and thus an important component of West Virginia's diversity history. Dr. Byrd Prillerman and Dr. John W. Davis, the first two presidents of State (their predecessors were principals), were pivotal in providing quality higher education to an underserved African-American population. President Davis recruited Dr. Carter Woodson, the nationally recognized "father" of Black History as the dean at State. Dr. Woodson's family originally moved to Huntington because there was a high school there for African-Americans.
Dr. Davis' close friend and Morehouse College roommate was the legendary Rev. Dr. Mordecai Johnson. Dr. Johnson was pastor of Charleston's historic First Baptist Church from 1917 to 1926 and often spoke at State during this time. He later left First Baptist to serve as Howard University's first African-American president and brought that institution to national prominence. The fact that all three of these legendary figures were in the Kanawha Valley at the same time is amazing and should be added to the positive conversation regarding the Mountain State. They worked cooperatively for community uplift and their stories should be celebrated and emulated in the name of expanding diversity.
While both WVU and State were created under the formulations of "separate but equal," the modern challenge for these institutions is how to best move forward in consideration of their histories. The goal is to educate our citizens from all races and classes while changing the national image of our state.
The question remains -- how do we proceed to have a more diverse and inclusive higher educational environment?
It is exciting to envision the first 25 years of the 21st century reproducing, in modern constructs, the diversity synergy of the early 20th century. All of our higher education institutions can enhance diversity contacts within the state by forging relationships with grass roots organizations such as KISRA, HOPE Development, New Covenant Development Corporation, The Partnership of African American Churches and Morgantown's Members of Diversity. National and international contacts must also be utilized to showcase West Virginia as being diversity friendly.
Increasing commitment to the goals of diversity by WVU as outlined in its 2020 Strategic Plan and initiatives by Marshall University, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and other institutions of higher education must be coupled with a consideration for the diversity legacy and present realities at West Virginia State as well as Bluefield State. West Virginia has the foundation for a 21st century formation of cooperative and progressive higher education relationships. We should all be hopeful that our best days for educational attainment and inclusiveness for all of our citizens are yet ahead.
Fryson, a lawyer and pastor, is a Gazette contributing columnist and is chief diversity officer for West Virginia University.