They were mostly older folks and showed up dressed in Cheyney University's school colors, blue and white. Some leaned heavily on canes or carried signs reading "Cheyney Alumni Pride" and "Black Minds Matter."
I felt as if I knew their stories. Like my parents, they had gone to historically black schools and had become educators, lifting themselves and their families into a middle-class existence. They bought homes, went to church, raised children who probably grew up the way I did: shielded from the harsh realities of what my parents had been through in North Carolina riding in the back of buses, having to work as domestics, being denied admittance to white institutions.
And now here they were, folks whose age, bearing, and dress reminded me of my parents, sweltering in the hot sun at Eighth and Arch Streets, fretting over the fate of their beleaguered institution, a school that was started by Quakers during an era of slavery and had helped them achieve their version of the American dream.
About 75 of them, plus a few current Cheyney students, had come out to get the attention of Gov. Wolf, who has expressed support for the school but whom they want to intervene now. Cheyney faces a Sept. 1 deadline to show why the Middle States Commission on Higher Education should not withdraw its accreditation. It's not a stretch to say that the future of the nation's oldest historically black institution of higher education is riding on that decision.
As a Howard University grad, I used to wonder why Cheyney, one of the smallest of the so-called HBCUs, didn't merge with a stronger, more financially viable institution. Enrollment is only around 746, down from 1,600 in 2010, and the school's budget deficit is the highest in its 180-year history. But talking to the bright-eyed undergrads and alums Tuesday, I got it. I found myself touched by their passion and love for their school.
Cheyney, you see, is theirs.
"I became a man at Cheyney University. I came to love my blackness at Cheyney," said Shaquille Harrison, a Cheyney undergrad, when it was his turn at the microphone. "Cheyney also served as a second chance for me. I wasn't someone who did great in high school. …
"I came to Cheyney and had professors who did not take mediocrity from me and did not take it when I made excuses. They pushed me forward. They motivated me to go to grad school. I'm proud to be the person that I am today because of Cheyney University."
And like proud alums everywhere, although they recognize the school's considerable financial problems, they love it with a fierceness, and point with pride to famous grads such as Ed Bradley of CBS's 60 Minutes; the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, and NFL safety Andre Waters.
"When I came up in the '60s, there weren't a lot of opportunities for black students. Universities like Cheyney, Lincoln, all of the HBCUs, they offered something that the white schools weren't willing to do — to give us a chance," said John Lay, 70, a 1970 Cheyney grad who taught in the Philadelphia public schools for 38 years. "And now that they've changed their attitude, they're siphoning off a lot of the black talent. Howard's having problems as well. All of the HBCUs are having problems."
In June, about 125 worried Cheyney grads met at Zion Baptist Church, 3600 N. Broad St., to discuss the situation.
Tuesday's gathering, organized by Philly lawyer and activist Michael Coard — a 1982 Cheyney grad — was intended to rally supporters while gaining the attention of Wolf, who had delivered the commencement address at the school's graduation May 17.
Alums want Wolf to do two things immediately:
"You can't make Cheyney better by making it smaller," argues Coard, who credits his Cheyney education with enabling him to get a full academic scholarship to Ohio State University's law school. "You've got to make it bigger. If they build up Cheyney and market Cheyney, then everybody will gravitate toward Cheyney like I did in the 1980s."