As America's first black president settles into the Oval Office, it seems an odd time for Georgia to be up in arms over school integration again. In 1961, when a federal court ordered the University of Georgia to admit two black students, 1,000 white rioters hurled firecrackers, bricks and racial epithets through dorm windows. But 1961 this is not: today a white Republican is leading the charge, and black students and lawmakers are fighting for the status quo.
With Georgia facing a $2 billion budget shortfall, Seth Harp, chairman of the state senate's higher-education committee, has proposed merging historically black public universities with mostly white schools nearby to cut administrative costs. Among other drawbacks, critics say, the move could mean fewer scholarships, larger classes and teacher layoffs. But race is the thorniest issue by far. "We've made tremendous progress in Georgia," says Harp. "I just think it's the right time to get rid of this vestige of legal segregation." (See pictures of a diverse group of American teens.)
Take Savannah State University, a 173-acre (70 hectare) campus of tawny brick buildings and Spanish-moss-covered oaks that hosts some 3,400 students. Under Harp's proposal, it would keep its name but merge with Armstrong Atlantic State, a majority-white school of about 7,000 down the road. Founded in 1890 as the Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth, Savannah State opened at its current site on a wooded salt marsh in 1891, 70 years before the state's universities were integrated. Its first president, Richard Wright Sr., was born into slavery.
But whereas Harp sees such schools as the product of an "ugly chapter in Georgia's history," black students and educators see them as a point of African-American pride. While historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) make up just 3% of U.S. schools, they produce nearly a quarter of all African-American graduates. A 2007 study showed that black men who attend a black college as opposed to another four-year school enjoy a hefty lifetime-earnings boost. HBCU alumni include Booker T. Washington, Toni Morrison, Sean (Diddy) Combs, Oprah Winfrey and more than a third of the current Congressional Black Caucus.
Many Savannah State students say an awareness of their heritage is one of the school's biggest selling points. "I take pride in it that African Americans who built this school at this time were going through such a hard struggle," says freshman Jamal Lewis, 19, standing a few paces from Hill Hall, the oldest building on campus, erected in 1901 by some of Savannah State's first students. If the schools were to merge, says Telena Johnson, 24, "I definitely would feel like I was being robbed."
But black schools, Savannah included, have their problems. Nationwide, 41% of black students graduate from college within six years (for white students, the figure is 59%). The rate is lower at the majority of HBCUs, which often accept low-performing students who may not have been given a chance elsewhere. At Savannah State, the figure hovers around 35%. A bigger problem is money: HBCUs are chronically underfunded, and Savannah State--with an endowment of just $3.4 million, compared with Armstrong's $7.9 million--is no exception. Harp expects the merger to help close that gap, an aspect of the plan that is winning over some critics. Emanuel Jones, chairman of Georgia's Legislative Black Caucus, says his "ears perked up" at talk of funding disparities, and he is co-sponsoring a resolution to study the merger's impact in detail. For now, the proposal is "not actually being considered by the [board of] regents," the only group with the authority to approve it, says John Millsaps, a spokesman for Georgia's university system. And while Chancellor Erroll Davis Jr. has said the plan could save money, he has also stated that it would harm students.
In the meantime, some students see at least one advantage to the merger. "A few people said, 'See it for the social aspect,'" says Savannah State sophomore Guannue Bouquia, 20. "More parties."