Sidney Sheppard sat on a brick wall in front of the Maryland Statehouse in Annapolis wearing a knitted Bowie State University cap. He had graduated from Bowie State with a degree in education in 1947, but came out in the colors of his alma mater on Feb. 4 to protest what he characterized as unfairness on behalf of state lawmakers toward students at Maryland’s four historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
“Maryland has denied black folks ever since we got our freedom and they’re still doing it,” said Sheppard, 89, of Baltimore, a retired educator.
Sheppard was among more than 200 people who showed up at the state capitol Feb. 4 for a rally to support parity in funding for Maryland’s historically black colleges and universities. As temperatures hovered in the 30s, students and alumni from Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, stood alongside Black Greek organizations, HBCU administrators, leaders from the NAACP and legislators to demand equity in college funding.
The rally was called to show support for the historic $2.3 billion lawsuit the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education filed in 2006 against the Maryland Higher Education Commission. The case seeks equity in funding for Maryland’s black colleges which have been historically underfunded, organizers said. The lawsuit was argued last year and a decision is expected this year.
State legislators said equitable funding for historically black colleges is the top priority for the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland which seeks $14 million in additional funding every year for the next five years for the state’s HBCUs.
“We are asking for justice and equality for Maryland’s four historically black colleges and universities,” said Del. Aisha Braveboy, the black caucus chair. “This issue did not start with the O’Malley-Brown administration, but under their leadership it can end.”
Several politicians at the protest also pledged their support for additional funding, including Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D), Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III.
“Whether you are educated at Towson or Morgan, Coppin or College Park, Eastern Shore or Frostburg, at Bowie or Salisbury, [every student] has [the right to] an equitable and adequate education,” Brown told the crowd, drawing cheers and applause.
Though the mood of the rally was joyous—with students clad in caps, scarves, T-shirts and jackets bearing their school colors chanting their school songs and joking around with classmates—organizers were clear about the gravity of their cause and the impact that the inequity in funding among Maryland’s universities is having on students.
“The students really need enough funding for financial aid,” said Tiffany Gardner, a third-year musical theater major at Bowie State. “Without the financial aid, students will not attend school.”
Some students said the funding disparities are evident in the facilities when comparing the physical plants at HBCUs to the state’s majority-White institutions.
“They’re better funded. They have better facilities while we’re just hoping that the bathrooms get cleaned up every day, that we still have toilet paper,” said Dionte Salvi, a sophomore and student government member at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore who discussed the disparity between his school and nearby Salisbury State, another institution under the University of Maryland system, after a three-hour bus ride with fellow students to get to the rally.
Joshua Harris, a senior and student government member at Morgan State University, had plenty to share about the differences between his school and nearby Towson State.
“Their campus is larger, their buildings are newer, up to date,” Harris said. “They have more technology services [and] more access to their libraries–24 hours. We can only afford to have our library open until midnight and sometimes we have to travel to Towson or John Hopkins to study late at night.”
Each of the Black university presidents addressed the crowd and expressed their pride in seeing the outpouring of student support for such an important issue.
“Our students understand that the lack of adequate resources is standing in the way of the ability to receive a competitive and top-notch education,” said Dr. David Wilson, president of Morgan State University. “They’re here tonight to say to the state of Maryland we appreciate the investment in the past, but you’ll have to make a much greater investment in these institutions going forward.”
Student protesters said they are pleased that so many people have rallied to help them.
“We are proud to see the black caucus and alumni from HBCU’s all over the nation are now aware of our struggles here in Maryland,” said Harris of Morgan State. “We pray to God that we are able to receive equal funding so we can continue to excel. And with those resources who knows what we can do as HBCU’s here in Maryland.”