by Felecia Commodore & Marybeth Gasman
A little over a week ago, many of us watched with horror as the story in Charleston, South Carolina at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church unfurled. For some of us, it was a horror we couldn’t fathom happening in 2015. It had to be a bad dream that was set in 1950’s Jim Crow culture. For some of us, there was no shock; we had seen this before us in the past. Though we did not wake up thinking we would be greeted with such a tragedy, somewhere in the back of our minds we knew that something like this could happen. We were not shocked, but rather disappointed that the fear many Black people have in regards to their lives was validated in such a horrific moment. Many of us had the same question play back over and over again in our minds: How could someone come into a church and kill 9 people because they were Black? But for many Black people, even this was not a shock. The truth is, Black sanctuaries have been under attack for a long time.
The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church was the first independent, Black denomination founded in the United States. Richard Allen, who would later be the first elected bishop of the AME church, had the vision to found a church where people would be able to worship freely, regardless of color, after being denied the right to pray at the altar of a White United Methodist church. Allen saw the importance of Black people having spaces that were safe spaces, sanctuaries for their communities. And for centuries Black people have found sanctuary in their historical institutions, whether they be churches, HBCUs, sororities and fraternities, civic groups, and social groups, organizations, and gatherings. These sanctuaries served as places where Black people could meet, draw strength from each other, educate and be educated, commune, strategize, celebrate victories, and voice anger and rage. These institutions are places where one could be unapologetically Black and unfettered in their revel of Black culture. These spaces were not only sacred, but the Black bodies that filled them were sacred as well.
However, as long as Black people have found safety in these sanctuaries, those who hold deep hatred and contempt for Blacks have sought to desecrate and destroy these spaces. To them these spaces were not sacred and neither were the bodies that occupied them. Whether it be a bomb ending four brilliant, beautiful, little girls lives far too early in 1963, the shooting of college students on the Jackson State University campus in 1970, the strategic political posturing to disproportionately underfund HBCUs and use corrupt policies to dismantle them, the constant questioning of the relevancy or necessity of Black spaces, affinity groups, and organizations, or walking into a Black church and taking nine Black lives in an act of domestic terrorism. It seems that those who would have Black Americans live in fear for their lives and existence believe that the best way to do so is to destroy and disrupt the places where many of them find peace, solace, and community away from the oppression and institutional racism they encounter every day. These latest actions in a long lineage of racially motivated domestic terrorist attacks point to a belief that the best way to instill fear in people of color is to not only attack them but to also attack their sanctuaries.
It is for this reason that we must fight even more vigorously for the preservation and sustentation of our Historically Black Institutions. Their mere existence are radical statements of rebellion against a system that continues to seek out ways to erase or smudge Black culture, spaces, and bodies from our consciousness. These institutions are attacked because they have and continue to be places where the best of Black culture, intellect, and collective power goes to plant, grow, and thrive. They are places where Black bodies learn that they are divine and valuable. They are the places where Black people gather to pick up the pieces, put them back together, and to fight another day.
We mourn for the lives of the Emanuel 9. We mourn the lives that were taken simply because someone felt Black people didn’t deserve the same life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness this country claims are its citizens’ inalienable rights. We mourn the loss of the lives of Black persons who, without reluctance but pure hospitality, opened their sanctuary to someone outside of their community as so many historically Black institutions do. We mourn a 5-year old girl’s loss of innocence, a little girl who was introduced to the fatal power of hatred far too early. But in the midst of our mourning let these 9 lives lost remind us how precious it is for us to protect our safe spaces, our sanctuaries.
Let us remember how important it is to value the spaces in which we gather, the spaces where we find each other, the places where Black is beautiful and beloved. Let us do what we must to ensure that our Historically Black Institutions do not become ineffective, dull, dilapidated or diluted. Let us also resolve to be even bolder in the face of ignorance and injustice and may we never forget to show the world that our institutions are national treasures and monuments to the strength, beauty, and power of a great people and culture. Even in troubled times like this, our institutions, our sanctuaries shine a light that reaches much farther than the shadow of bigotry that would try to keep them hidden. The people that find themselves there, won’t be hidden either. They will shine brightly.
More now than ever before, we need to stand up, rise up, and support, defend, and champion our Black institutions. We need to teach Black children of their importance and more than that, we need to show Black children why they are essential to Black progress. Let us all answer this question: What have we done today for Black people and Black institutions? What will we do tomorrow, and the day after? The fight, the journey, and the need will not end without all of us.
About the Authors
Felecia Commodore is a research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Felecia received her Ph.D. in Higher Education from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. She has a background working as an admissions counselor and academic advisor at Trinity University, Washington, D.C. and University of Maryland, College Park respectively. Felecia obtained an M.A. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Maryland, College Park, MD and a B.S. in Marketing with a minor in Sociology from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. Felecia was selected as a 2013 intern for the Southern Education Foundation. Felecia has currently has work relating to this research published in the Journal of Multicultural Education and the Journal of Negro Education. She is also contributor to HBCULifestyle.com, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, and Noodle.com. She is co-editor of the book Opportunities and Challenges of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Felecia’s research focus area is leadership, governance, and administrative practices with a particular focus on HBCUs and MSIs. Felecia’s research interests also lie in how leadership is exercised, constructed, and viewed in various communities, and the relationship of Black women and leadership.
Marybeth Gasman is a professor of higher education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. She also serves as the Director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. Marybeth is an expert on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Black leadership, fundraising and philanthropy in communities of color and Minority Serving Institutions. She is the author of 18 books in these subject areas and many articles.