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'We have a great way to go'

by Jennifer Biller

STAFF WRITER

CLARKSBURG -- Persis Bates is doing something her grandparents never had the chance to do: She's attending a college that isn't based on skin color.

It's been 50 years since West Virginia legislators passed the law permitting blacks to attend state colleges and universities. Since that time, the number of blacks receiving college educations has risen dramatically.

Yet, Bates is still a minority among the mostly white student body at Fairmont State University.

"I do think integration has been successful. Both my grandparents went to all-black colleges, but I didn't have to choose a school based on race," Bates said. "But colleges and universities could push more toward recruitment of minorities."

More blacks in college

In 1952, only 2 percent of blacks over the age of 25 were college graduates, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2002, the rate had increased to 17 percent, statistics show.

Not only are more blacks attending college than ever before, more are staying to earn degrees.

In 1957, 252,000 blacks had at least a bachelor's degree. By 2002, the number had increased to 3.5 million, census data showed.

"I just wish there were more, but I realize a lot of times they don't have financial support," said Allen Lee, president of the Harrison County chapter of the NAACP.

"I would like to see more of our youngsters take advantage of scholarships and prepare themselves for it, even if they have to go to summer school," Lee said. "There's no disgrace in going to summer school."

Successful integration?

Looking at the numbers, the integration of blacks into higher education appears to be a success, said Katherine Bankole, director of the Center for Black Culture and Research at West Virginia University.

But it all depends on how one measures success, she added.

"Half a million college-aged black males are in prison. It has reached major crisis," Bankole said. "So when there are more black males in prison than in higher education, there's a real concern."

Of the approximate 24,000 students enrolled at WVU, 900 are African-American, she said.

The Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., resulted in desegregation of public schools and colleges. But young black students are still getting left behind in education at an early age, some black students say.

"They tend to get lost in the shuffle," Bates recalls, of her days in elementary and high school watching some of her fellow black classmates. "We have to keep excelling in the community and in school. We have to take the initiate and help others better themselves."

Integration is not yet complete, some say. More black recruiters and the encouragement of young black students will help achieve the goal, educators say.

Desegregation was just one aspect of the Civil Rights Movement. The intention was to create equal job and education opportunities for blacks.

The fact that Bankole is now an assistant professor at a college -- that 50 years ago by law would not have allowed her to attend -- is an accomplishment of the Civil Rights Movement. The center she heads is also a result of the Civil Rights Movement.

"People bled, fought and died so blacks could go to school, people whose names you'll never know in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana," she said. "We've had some great successes, but we have a great way to go."

Prevailing prejudices

Steven Jamison knows integration isn't just about education. It's about being accepted into communities, regardless of skin color.

A recent graduate of West Virginia University and a native of New York, Jamison is now searching for a job as a teacher.

He experienced some prejudice while living in Morgantown as a student. Seeking a quiet environment, he tried to find an apartment off-campus.

"Sometimes, landlords are not open to people of color and come up with excuses not to let you in," he said. "We are treated a little differently, but not necessarily by the school community, but by the surrounding community."

He believes metropolitan areas are more open to integration. Smaller towns sometime keep up the barriers, he said.

Still, things are better than 50 years ago, Bankole said.

The number of black college students enrolled in the 1950s compared to today shows that progress is possible, she said.

"Academic achievement in the face of adversity can flourish," Bankole said.

Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1449 or by e-mail at jbiller@exponent-telegram.com