Black higher-ed and a brewing debate over reparations

Photo courtesy of Savannah State University

Photo courtesy of Savannah State University

Lester Jackson, a full-time Savannah dentist and part-time state senator, is sticking his neck out in a major way.

Three weeks ago, on the penultimate day of the 2019 session of the General Assembly, Jackson filed a bill that would remove all three public, historically black universities from the oversight of the state Board of Regents.

Under Senate Bill 278, Albany State, Fort Valley State, and Savannah State, representing a total of some 13,000 students, would become the Georgia Agricultural and Mechanical University System.

Jackson thinks the survival of the three schools is at stake. Savannah State suffered a nearly 8% drop in enrollment last fall. Twenty-six non-tenured faculty members were marked for lay-offs. Savannah State’s budget was reduced to $107 million this year, down from $121 million the year before.

Historically black colleges and universities (or HBCUs) are those institutions that were started during the Jim Crow era – when most public halls of higher learning were declared off-limits to African-Americans.

Of the three public HBCUs in Georgia, Savannah State is oldest, dating to 1890. (HBCUs in Atlanta such as Spelman and Morehouse colleges are private schools, and so would not be covered by SB 278.)

Because they educated generation after generation of African-Americans, HBCUs are also cultural and political touchstones. A separate system for the three schools now in the university system would at least offer some clarity about their future, Jackson said.

“We would become our own advocates, working directly with the General Assembly and directly with the governor’s office – instead of going through a third party,” Jackson said. “We would have the ability to ask for a law school, a pharmacy school, a veterinarian school. That will not just attract students but give us our own identity and our own self-worth.”

That third party mentioned by Jackson, of course, is the state Board of Regents, which maintains tight control over the University System’s $2.4 billion annual budget – mostly free of legislative interference.

That’s a point of complaint for many lawmakers, but the spending authority the board exercises over local colleges and universities also makes legislators loathe to criticize the body.

The Regents, by the way, oppose Jackson’s bill.

His measure started out with seven co-signers, who now say they were misled. Leaders of the three universities said they had no idea he was contemplating the move. Jackson is now the sole sponsor of SB 278.

Republican leaders of the Senate recognize a Democratic argument when they see one. They assigned the bill to the Senate Urban Affairs Committee, chaired by Jackson. It is also one of only two committees entirely peopled by Democratic senators.

Some bills are intended to change the world. Others are launched to start a conversation. Jackson’s bill may fall into the latter camp. The timing works.

Perhaps for the first time in a U.S. presidential campaign, Democratic candidates are addressing, at times awkwardly, the topic of reparations — financial redress for the descendants of American slaves.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced legislation this month that would establish a commission to study the matter. Several of his rivals have expressed support for the general idea.

In the 2018 race for governor, Democrat Stacey Abrams steered clear of the topic. But in an interview last week, she embraced it.

“I believe African-Americans and Native Americans are entitled to reparations. We were the two communities who were legally disenfranchised from the inception of this country,” Abrams said.

The former candidate for governor, who is still toying with a run for U.S. Senate or president, acknowledged that the form that reparations might take is the harder question.

“I don’t know enough to know what the answer is. But I should be part of the conversation,” Abrams said.

The last major financial project that comes to mind, in which an entire country agreed to cut checks to a wronged people, is the reparation system that West Germany adopted in the early 1950s to benefit individual survivors of the Holocaust.

Wiedergutmachung, they called it – then and now. "To make good again."

Survivors were required to prove their claims in order to qualify for modest pensions — a harrowing experience for many Jews, who once again were required to confront the German bureaucracy.

The logistics involved in deciding who would and wouldn’t be eligible in an attempt to make descendants of American slaves whole would be far more daunting. By way of illustration, an Athens group currently requiring that the University of Georgia address its own slave history included this in a list of demands: “Guarantee full-tuition, all-fees-included scholarships for descendants of the enslaved people who worked on UGA’s campus.”

But if, in this coming debate over reparations, institutions are targeted as recipients rather than individuals, then historically black colleges and universities would be one of many places to start. They have well-documented, historic standing.

That alone makes Lester Jackson’s bill worth talking about.