‘Break our silence’: A North Carolina HBCU is questioning its city’s intentions

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Barber-Scotia College leadership gathered Saturday to respond to claims of obstruction from Concord city officials and shared a timeline of a relationship that soured once two dorms were demolished in 2014.

“We are here today to break our silence,” Roberta Pinckney, chair of the Board of Trustees, said.

She was joined by more than 40 people in Kittie Sansom Chapel on the Concord-based HBCU’s campus. Community members gathered on stage to show support for the historic college.

In the past several years, the 155-year-old college has faced hardships since losing its accreditation in 2004. The current enrollment has four students who attend the college online. It held its most recent graduation in 2019.

Pinckney said the two dorms had fallen into disrepair and were judged as community hazards by the city. The city hired a contractor to demolish the buildings since the college was unable to pay, she said.

But a $380,000 bill was not sent to the college until 2021, she said, and the school was only given 30 days to pay. In 2017, Concord city officials formed a Barber-Scotia College Properties task force. She said the move was viewed as a scheme to turn the community against the college. College representatives were initially excluded, she added.

The task force later hired an engineer to inspect the buildings on campus. Pinckney said school leadership felt this request was “collusive.”

“The Board and its alumni did not trust the city after the dorms were demolished,” Pinckney said, adding that city officials terminated the agreement.

Last week, the Concord city council disbanded the task force for the school.

“Despite our efforts and financial commitment, Barber-Scotia College officials refuse to work in partnership with us, and have continuously obstructed the work of the Task Force,” Concord’s City Council said in a statement.

Concord City Council member JC McKenzie, who led the task force, was not immediately available for comment Friday.

McKenzie told WCNC the property could be taken through eminent domain. But he wouldn’t support that decision unless the community was behind it, the outlet reported.

Eminent domain allows a local or state government to take private property for “public use.” The government can take the property but must pay the owners “just compensation,” according to the Institute for Justice.

Rev. Leonard Jarvis, president of the Cabarrus County NAACP, said too often HBCUs go without equitable funding or support from local and state officials. Jarvis said HBCUs are needed and important institutions for Black communities across the country.

“Too often a white majority has removed our institutions,” Jarvis said. “But they maintain their own.”

The school’s plan

Last year, Barber-Scotia announced its five-year plan to have its accreditation restored.

The plan included goals to strengthen its current programs through internal academic reviews. Other objectives are a student retention plan, create a new facility plan, build operational capacity and focus on financial strength through new donors.

Amid the plan’s launch, school officials learned the college could face a new bill. In a Feb. 16 letter to school leadership, Cabarrus County tax administrator David Thrift denied tax exemption for several parcels of the college’s land for not meeting statutory requirements.

School officials could face an estimated $127,000 property tax bill based on last year’s tax rate, according to county tax records.

Tracey Flemmings, interim president of Barber-Scotia, said leadership was told the buildings lost their status because they did not house students. Yet the city’s code enforcement has not approved the college’s buildings so they can, she said.

Flemmings said it was “strange” considering the properties had been tax exempt for more than 40 years. She said the college respectfully asks the city to “back off.”

“Allow this new administration time to work its plan,” she said.

‘A tremendous loss’

Jackie Washington, former president of Barber-Scotia College’s alumni association, said the college is a key part of the community. She grew up in the nearby Logan neighborhood — a historically Black Concord neighborhood.

The impact of losing the historic college would be widespread, she said.

“It would leave a vacuum here,” said Washington, a 1964 graduate.

Elaine King, a first generation graduate of Barber-Scotia, said the community wants to see the school open. King said the school has continued its mission to educate students. During the pandemic it held a multicultural virtual academy, she said. Last summer, they invited West Charlotte High School’s band director to host a band camp on campus.

“We have worked hard to keep Barber-Scotia going,” King, a 1971 graduate, said.

She said it would be an asset for the city to truly partner with the college. If the school closed the city would suffer “a tremendous loss,” she added.

King said buildings like the Stonewall Jackson Youth Development Center remain standing despite being abandoned for decades.

“Yet the city made the decision we’re in such a bad shape,” she said.

It would be an asset for the city to truly partner with the college, King said. “Sit down at the table. Start where we are and truly go forward.”