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Part One: HBCU Enrollment Woes Mirror Business Closures Post-Segregation

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By Rosaland Tyler

Associate Editor

New Journal and Guide

Black-owned businesses increasingly closed their doors after the 1965 Civil Rights Acts became law because many of its customers could go elsewhere.

It sounds like ancient history until you notice a similar trend may be underway at the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. One example is the once-segregated business district on Church Street in Norfolk, which is located a few blocks from Norfolk State University.

“Church Street was a city all to itself in the 1900’s,” Debbie Speight noted in, Blacks in Business Portsmouth and Norfolk 1920-1940.

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“It was described as having a blend of everything such as churches, hospitals, graveyards, furniture, stores, jewelry stores, and etc. In 1890 to 1920, Church Street became home to immigrants from other countries.”

Businesses such as Altschul’s, Arthur’s Drugstore, Eureka Lodge, Attucks Theatre were a few of the small business entities that provided customers credit, gratitude, a helping hand, and a nice place to shop. Although some of these businesses were not Black-owned, many were, including barber shops and restaurants, and the patronage was mainly African-American.

The problem is the former business district on Church Street is not unique. Black business owners suddenly had to compete with white businesses in Charleston, S.C., which is located about an hour and a half from South Carolina State University. In June, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools said South Carolina State would retain its accreditation but remain on probation for one more year.

Placed on probation in June 2014 for financial governance issues, South Carolina State is located about an hour and a half from a business district of color in Charleston that declined after the 1965 Civil Rights Act gave consumers of color more choices.

“The premise is one I’ve heard many times,” Charleston City Paper Columnist Barney Blakeney wrote on March 12, 2008.

“During the late 1960s and 1970s, integration opened the doors of fast food restaurants like Piggy Park on Rutledge Avenue and the Patio on Spring Street. Until then, Dee Dex Snack Bar had been the premier fast food restaurant for Blacks downtown.”

“The business was originally located on Calhoun Street where Gaillard Auditorium is now,” Blakeney noted. “The auditorium’s construction displaced the snack bar and drugstore owned by the late Deward Wilson and scores of Black families.

When the business relocated to Spring Street, its business continued to flourish, but its days were numbered.”

Blakeney pointed to other bygone landmarks in Charleston that slowly disappeared after the 1965 Civil Rights Act became law. For example there was the Brooks Motel on Morris Street, where Dr. Martin L. King Jr. stayed when he visited Charleston.

“Today, there’s no sign of the motel or Brooks Restaurant, across from the motel on Morris Street,” Blakeney said. “Both were demolished.”

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The point is this. Norfolk State is trying to solve several problems that many other schools are facing. Specifically, college enrollment nationwide fell for the second year in a row in 2013, from about 20.2 million students in the fall of 2012 to about 19.9 million this year, according to a recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse.

Or this is how accreditation expert David Hager described Norfolk State’s challenges in news reports in December 2013 when the school was placed on warning. “It’s not impossible to correct what they have to correct.”

Is Norfolk State struggling with the ripple effect after being placed on probation in December 2014? For example in May 2015, Norfolk State announced plans to eliminate 97 jobs – some of them currently vacant – to deal with a $16.7 million deficit in the budget for the next academic year.

But zero in on other facts. In other words, fresh waves continue to surface during the ripple effect. For example, Norfolk State said enrollment for the fall was expected to be about 5,100 – a drop of 900 in a year.

Most recently the ripple effect at Norfolk State hit the school’s exceptional but underfunded athletic programs. According to records from the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts, the school’s athletic programs lost nearly $2.4 million combined during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 fiscal years.

This means more students of color enroll elsewhere. And old business districts of color provide compelling tell-tale clues. Are the trends similar? The answer is yes, no, and wait-and-see.

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