Why saving Bennett College matters

Students from Bennett College are seen here protesting racial segregation at the National Theatre in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, in the 1960s. The women's HBCU, which played a prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement, is now facing the threat of closure due to financial difficulties, but there's an effort underway to save it.  (Photo via Wikipedia.) 

The first college graduation I can remember attending was at Bennett College, a historically Black women's private liberal arts school in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was my sister Sharrelle's graduation, and at the time I couldn't fully grasp how powerful it was to watch so many young Black women graduate from one of only two colleges that were created specifically for Black women, the other being Spelman in Atlanta. I didn't realize how powerful it was that the commencement speaker, Maya Angelou, was someone who had survived rape, abuse, racism, misogyny — and yet had risen up to become one of the most beloved writers in the world.
But as I've grown older and come into my own as a Black woman who is equally proud of both identities, I understand that when I stepped onto the campus of Bennett College, I was stepping onto what Sharrelle calls a "sacred space." It is a sacred space because, in a world that often treats Black women as though we are disposable, Bennett nurtures and centers Black women, and equips us to change that world for the better. 

I've seen the impact of Bennett College on my sister and how it helped her to find her voice. And it was in a Black feminist class at my own alma mater, North Carolina Central University in Durham, taught by a Bennett alumna, that my own voice grew stronger as I experienced the power of spaces that center Black women.

When Black women affect elections with their activism and votes, we often hear the phrase #TrustBlackWomen. But to actually experience that trust is profound. To be in a space where Black women's expertise is appreciated, centered, and uplifted is transformative. That is why Bennett College matters. That is why it is sacred space. 

But we also know that such spaces are often the ones we have fight hardest to protect.

This month, after two years on probation, Bennett was dropped by its accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS), over concerns about declining enrollment and several straight years of budget deficits. The move came even after a recent uptick in admissions and fundraising. Schools that lose accreditation can't accept federal grants or federal student loans and often close. Bennett has appealed the decision, with a hearing expected in February.

In the meantime, there's an effort underway involving students, alumni, and supporters to raise $5 million to #SaveBennett and prove to the SACS that it is a vital institution that needs to remain open.

I recently spoke with Sharrelle about why she chose to attend Bennett, its role in the Civil Rights Movement, and what we can do to save the school. Her remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. 
Why did you decide to attend Bennett College, and what has the school meant for you?

I started Bennett in 2003. I went to Eastern Wayne High School in Goldsboro and graduated at the top of my class and applied to a number of schools in North Carolina. But when I visited Bennett as a high school student, I just felt like it was the right place to be for a number of reasons.

One reason was because of Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, the 14th president of the college who had just taken over in 2002. She's an anthropologist who's done amazing work in race and gender studies, and the former president at Spelman. I knew that to be under her leadership and to be able to learn from a really strong Black woman in leadership would be amazing.

The other reason I chose Bennett over other places was because of the feeling almost every Bennett Belle says that they have — the moment when they stepped on campus and they just knew. It was this feeling they had about the place — about it really being what I call a "sacred space" for Black women.

An institution fully dedicated to nurturing and raising up Black women — we don't often have that. I felt that that was where I needed to be and that was where I was going to be able to find my purpose.

Bennett also has a huge legacy in the Civil Rights Movement. Can you talk a little about that?

The Bennett Belles were at the forefront. A lot of folks talk about the 1960 Woolworth sit-in, but many don't realize that that was actually planned on Bennett's campus. Bennett women were in leadership roles in terms of planning that movement. The four men sat down on Feb. 1, 1960, but Bennett women had planned to be part of it as well. And so they were very instrumental in doing that initial work and also continuing that work.

In addition, Bennett College President Dr. Willa B. Player — the first African-American woman president of a four-year college — was very active in the movement. In 1958, Bennett was the only place in Greensboro that would allow Martin Luther King Jr. to speak. Other places were fearful because of threats of violence, but Bennett opened its chapel to have him be able to speak. That was a huge example of how committed to civil rights the institution was. And again, Willa B. Player was the one who made sure that happened.

When Bennett Belles were involved in the sit-ins and went to jail, Dr. Player made sure that they got their homework and were able to still complete their assignments. She supported the activism from an administrative level and recognized the moment that the country was in. Yes, the students were there to get an education. Yes, they were there to get a degree. But she also knew that in this moment, they had to be engaged in the Civil Rights Movement and making change in the country. You didn't see that at many institutions.

You have to think of some of the limitations that have been on HBCUs since they were started, like when they could only own a certain amount of land, which limited their wealth over time. HBCUs were built for formerly enslaved folks, while other institutions were built on the backs of slaves.

Back in October, I was at Bennett and some of the Belles were telling me about how when the National Guard was at North Carolina A&T in 1969, Bennett women created this barricade and invited A&T students over because they knew that the National Guard couldn't come onto their campus because it was a private institution. And even as early as the 1930s, Bennett students were protesting against separate and unequal accommodations in public spaces at the theater in downtown Greensboro. Bennett women have always been about education, excellence, but also activism.

One more thing I'll point out. We had a former student government president, Sandi Smith, who was very active in the local Greensboro community once she finished at Bennett. She was killed by the KKK in the 1970s. Rev. Nelson Johnson and others had a demonstration against the KKK, which the Klan disrupted with violence. We have had Bennett Belles that have literally given their life for the cause. I think that that legacy has continued on in different ways.

You've referred to Bennett as a "sacred space." Can you talk more about that, and what it means that this space is at risk of closing?

What I mean by sacred space is a space where Black women can come and fully blossom into who they are. In so many ways in this society and everywhere around the world Black women have had to configure themselves into a certain mold. There aren't many places like Bennett. It was founded in the basement of a church (Warnersville Methodist Episcopal Church, now St. Matthew's Methodist Church), so it is literally a sacred space, one that holds onto that rich faith tradition and is welcoming of other faith traditions. It a space that folks have worked to create and where women can be, where women can thrive. Dr. Julianne Malveaux (a former Bennett president) called it "an oasis." That's sacred, because you are grooming women who will not only see their degrees as something they do for their own personal gain, but will have a sense of purpose and a sense of calling. That's one of the biggest things on campus. One of the former presidents, Dr. David Dallas Jones, used to ask students, "What is your purpose?" Not just what is your major, or are you going to have a good job, but what is your purpose?

Bennett's Black Madonna
The Black Madonna in Bennett College's chapel. (Photo by Sharrelle Barber.) 

Bennett is is a space that honors Black women, that lifts up Black women, that empowers Black women to be all that they have been created to be. I think that's sacred work. You have students and staff and leadership that are Black women. When I was on campus, I saw Dr. Cole embody what it means to be a true servant leader. For a young Black woman seeing this powerful Black woman in leadership, I feel like that was sacred. Dr. Cole invited so many powerful people to campus — Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King. It was a space where Black women were centered. There aren't many places like that.

It was a place that nurtured sisterhood and community. That's also a sacred act. Anywhere you go in the world, if you say you're a Bennett Belle and you meet another Bennett Belle, anything you need, you have it. And then in the chapel, where so much of our programming happens on campus, we have this Black Madonna. It's just a powerful symbol of the sacredness of that space. To have a Black Madonna when we know what the images of the Madonna usually are, and to have this Black Madonna at the center point of the chapel, which is a centerpoint of the campus — I think it's a powerful, supernatural in some ways, space that Bennett represents. 

Etched on our school's bell is a scripture from the Book of Isaiah, which says, "To proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of prisons of those that are bound." And that scripture about breaking chains, about being attuned to the least of these, that is so prophetic. It's what we should be doing, whatever faith tradition we come from. We should be talking about justice. So that scripture being etched on the bell, I think it's a powerful symbol and statement. 

That is the root of this college. Now juxtapose that with UNC, for example, where they were going to spend over $5 million to resurrect a Confederate monument to honor individuals who tore down, destroyed, and literally sucked the life out of Black women and Black folks. Juxtapose that. People want to pump $5 million into that but don't want to salvage an institution that is about the uplift of Black women — but not only Black women. Because when you uplift Black women you change the world because we're going to go out, take what we get, and try to make our communities better. We're going to try to make this society better and use our gifts to make this world a better place.

What can we do to help keep this sacred space open?

There's the Stand With Bennett fundraising campaign that the college has launched. That's a start. But we definitely have to think about our models for investing in Black women — and not only at Bennett but other historically black colleges and universities. You have to think of some of the limitations that have been put on HBCUs since they were started, like when they could only own a certain amount of land, which limited their wealth over time. HBCUs were built for formerly enslaved folks, while other institutions were built on the backs of slaves. I also went to school at UNC and Harvard, and I know for sure that Harvard benefited from the slave trade.

You have institutions like that that are now wealthy, and you have places like Bennett that have had to struggle financially from the very beginning. Then you compound that with the economic downturn and all the other things that have happened, and it is not surprising that a place like Bennett would struggle.

You also think about, as one of my professors said, that as Black women we are already making so much less than our white counterparts. Bennett alumnae are selfless in their giving, and every year they raise a lot of money to support the institution. Alumnae are doing their best, but think about those inequalities.

So yes, in this moment we have to get through and raise money so it won't close. But we also have to figure out ways to invest more equitably in places like Bennett and change the structure so a school like Bennett can still thrive and exist. We must all stand with Bennett.