Amid growing skepticism about the continued relevance and future of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a look at the institutions’ work in New Orleans post-Katrina shows that, although some schools may have past due bills and unemployed graduates, the spirit of support and community is a positive attribute that all of these institutions can boast.
In the aftermath of the unprecedented devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina six years ago, HBCUs stepped up and rallied to support the city’s recovery efforts and the students that the storm left behind.
“The HBCU response [to Katrina] was a tremendous response. We took in more students than all majority [white] institutions combined,” Dr. Mike Weaver told BET.com. “We are truly our brother and sister’s keepers.”
While teaching at Morehouse College in 2005, Weaver decided to begin researching the efforts of HBCUs to accommodate displaced New Orleans' students.
Weaver says that, in the wake of the country’s biggest natural disaster, HBCU host schools were faced with a multitude of issues connected with accepting the influx of students, such as whether to charge for enrollment and how to properly place them in courses when all records, transcripts and financial aid information were no longer available.
New Orleans is home to three historically Black institutions — Southern University of New Orleans, Dillard University and Xavier University — all of whom suffered devastating physical loss and damage as a result of the storm. Following Katrina, Xavier faced an estimated $45 million in repairs, Dillard reported $400 million and Southern University of New Orleans estimated nearly $500 million in damage.
According to Weaver's research roughly 9,600 students from New Orleans HBCUs were displaced by the storm and other historically black institutions — often at no cost — welcomed an estimated 2,842 of those students. The remaining students either took the semester off or enrolled at majority–white institutions.
While the administrations helped students continue their education in the face of disaster, HBCU students themselves rolled up their sleeves and went to work putting their brains and brawn to work for the city.
Criminal law professor at Howard University School of Law, Josephine Ross, reflected on the schools’ initial decision to take their students to New Orleans to volunteer.
“As soon as the dust settled there, I started to look at the idea of bringing a group of clinical students to deal with the issues surrounding people who were just swept up and lost,” Ross told BET.com.
“Soon, the word got out and about 50 students signed up that year. And that’s really what separates Howard [from other schools]. We brought more students and faculty members than any other school at that point. Our faculty even ended up helping other students [from other schools]. That’s how great the need was.”
Howard Law has returned to New Orleans every year since 2007, and over the years, the students have worked on a range of legal projects, the scope of which has evolved as city has returned to normalcy.
Volunteer work has included assisting the public defenders office, helping people find titles for homes to apply for FEMA money to rebuild, doing environmental justice work and assisting with juvenile court cases.
Ross recalled the level of commitment she observed in the students.
“We toured the devastation … you could see, on people's faces, the dedication … that they were happy to do the work that they were doing,” Ross said.
“I can remember students from a very prestigious majority university showing up for work late, but not the Howard students," Ross said. “There was a lot of pride Howard had. The students really treated it like it was a job.”
And although still recovering themselves, the institutions in New Orleans have also made continual and substantial efforts to pitch in with recovery efforts.
“We began assisting with rebuilding efforts before any other university was back in the city,” Christy Legarde, assistant director of Student/Community Engagement at Xavier, told Our Weekly.
“Our institution was founded on service, so we are passionate and ready to serve. We believe that, in order to be a true leader, you must first serve. The students get together one Saturday every month to work on rebuilding efforts in the community.”
(Photo: Lee Celano/Reuters)