By Oliver St. Clair Franklin
This weekend, a few hundred alumni will return to Lincoln University for homecoming festivities, a ritual rich in symbolism that is unique to American colleges. There will be lunches and banquets and interactions with the administration, faculty, and undergraduates, along with renewals of friendships.
Besides the football game, the highlight of the weekend will be the report on the "state of the university" and the new campus master plan, which includes the demolition of four buildings built on campus between 1865 and 1891.
The debate over this plan has rivaled some of the other great debates that have occurred at Lincoln over the years.
The first of these debates was whether to change the name from Ashmun Institute - after the white Presbyterian Jehudi Ashmun, who led one of the first groups of free U.S. blacks to found the West African nation of Liberia - to Lincoln to honor the martyred president. In the 1930s, the big conversation was about the need to have black instructors along with the Princeton-dominated faculty. And finally, in the 1960s, there was debate about whether to admit women, a major battle over the very nature of the all-male institution.
One must sympathize with the challenges of historically black colleges and universities, which face extreme fiscal and social pressures and struggle to attract and keep students. The Lincoln administration has responded creatively to these challenges recently by announcing a freeze on tuition increases and adding the definite article The to the name to distinguish the university from other institutions named after Lincoln.
However, in today's urban world of hip-hop culture, the "new" has tremendous value; it is almost a commodity. Colleges are marketed on their amenities, and ranking services focus intensively on them. The power of social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, makes all students instant and influential critics of their environment. Is it any wonder that the college wants to demolish certain buildings that are difficult to use and too expensive to maintain?
While these buildings represent a physical link to the past, their presence demonstrates for students the historical power of touching the "authentic." And authentic experience is a central part of the educational experience. A good example of this need for authenticity during my years as a student was the politics of dormitory room assignments.
Future poets gained inspiration from living and studying in Langston Hughes' dormitory rooms, while future lawyers bragged about the presence of "The Justice" in Thurgood Marshall's rooms. The lobbying for the rooms of Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first presidents of Ghana and Nigeria, respectively, was so intense that, on occasion, fisticuffs erupted. There was a certain power and connection to consciously inhabiting the intellectual space that these alumni occupied. Is this not something that a liberal-arts environment should cherish?
So, this weekend, there will be a lot of discussions about history, heritage, and the physical future of the university. These discussions will be eloquent and passionate. There will be many proposals, including one from a group of alumni that is suggesting a heritage district for the campus and its surroundings, thereby putting these buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and opening additional funding sources for preservation.
Sixty-seven years after the signing of the U.S. Constitution, in these modest 19th-century buildings, free, fugitive, and newly freed black men studied Latin and Greek, the Old and New Testaments, and philosophy and mathematics, and they went out into a hostile world to change the social and political contours of America and Africa. This is a heritage worth preserving.