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Bluefield State College: An Example of Changing Demographics at HBCUs

The cover page of The Bluefieldian, 1938.

This week in our series on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), we examine the history of Bluefield State College in Bluefield, West Virginia. Bluefield State College was established in 1895 by the West Virginia state legislature as a high school for students of Black coal miners. The school was also referred to as Bluefield Colored Institute and by the 1920’s, its football team was a powerhouse among black colleges. Bluefield served as a source of higher education for much of the region's black middle class.

However, by the mid-20th century, larger social transformations began that turned the demographics of Bluefield State College from a school with a majority Black student base to one with a majority white student body. After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed school segregation across the nation, the combination of high educational quality and low tuition costs at Bluefield is what began to attract white students. During the same juncture, Brown v. Board of Education also allowed African American students to exercise their educational options beyond traditionally black colleges like Bluefield. Today, Bluefield State College is 82 percent white, but the school continues to receive the federal funding that comes with its designation as a historically black institution.

The student paper of Bluefield State College is The Bluefieldian and it was published by the Press Club of the Teachers College at Bluefield. Its motto was “A Paper with a Purpose.” Amistad has six issues of The Bluefieldian in our School Newspaper Collection. The issues are all from the 1930s and detail the school’s early history before its demographic change. The paper largely covered school events and stories about faculty and students. This does not mean that local and national issues were ignored. In a February 1932 issue of The Bluefieldian, a glimpse was given into the development of Negro History Week, or what would eventually become Black History Month in the United States. The column, written six years after Carter G. Woodson founded the annual observance, focused on the importance of celebrating the historical contributions of African Americans. The author, doubting if Negro History Week would continue, ended the article with a brief sentence of hope that it would endure stating, “Through the years, may it live: through its life may it produce and to its produce, may men give ear...”

Bluefield had a very robust culture of Greek sororities and fraternities on its campus. The first fraternity to be established on the campus of Bluefield State College was the Beta Theta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha in March of 1932. By 1938, the fraternities of Kappa Alpha Psi and Omega Psi Phi were added to the list of Greek organizations on campus. New members of the organizations, as well as Greek events, were regularly covered in the newspaper.

The alumni periodical of Bluefield State College, 1927.

One activity on campus that was probably not as popular as Bluefield’s Greek life was its chapel programs. “Chapel,” as it was called, either did not have a high student attendance or was not as high as Bluefield’s administration would have liked. In the November 1933 issue of The Bluefieldian, three separate articles addressed the lack of student participation in chapel. In one article students were threatened to visit chapel “…voluntarily rather than forcibly,” lest they “feel the strong hand of administrative authority.” Some students were interviewed regarding the lack of participation and many said that the boring speakers were to blame for the absence of student zeal towards the activity. A year later in the November 1934 issue, the chapel editor of The Bluefieldian, Wyche Capel, was still imploring students to attend chapel.

The Kampus Komment portion of the paper revealed a more gossipy side of the university. It was a column that included witty and snarky rumors about student relationships on campus. The columnist, whose pseudonym was I. C. Allovit (a name constructed from the term “I see all of it”), made no effort to hide the identities of the individuals he/she was referring to, and in today’s terms their shenanigans would probably be described as “being messy.” Some of the sayings written by I. C. Allovit were:

"M. Watkins, why are you so interested in W. Capel?

Carmichael, how do you get so many dinner engagements?

Ike W., did you take the picture from Mable to give it to Alice R.?

C. Thompson, has J. Holt taken B. Ray’s place?

G. Cozart has quit a man for a boy. Calloway, Little Boy, what now?”

Some of the other university periodicals in the School Newspaper Collection included a similar section, and this kind of column reveals the types of information that can be gleaned about a university’s student culture from its newspapers. A complete list of schools from Amistad’s School Newspaper Collection can be found here.

Images from School Newspaper Collection. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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