Following the Civil War, back in a time when racial tensions were high in the United States, the federal government pressured Southern states to educate their freed slaves. Through a land grant offered by the federal government, the Texas Legislature created Prairie View A&M University in 1876 to serve colored youths. (Initially, the school had no name. The school’s first name, Alta Vista College for Colored Youths, was changed after a few years.) In 1878 eight students began their studies, and female students started classes in 1879. In time, enrollment grew and the university attracted the brightest students from the African American community. “Those kids came from communities where people actually gave them a send-off. They prayed for them at church. They took up collections. So a lot was expected of that academically talented student,” explains Frank Jackson, special assistant to the president at Prairie View A&M University.
In 1954 the United States Supreme Court decided that segregation in public schools was illegal. The monumental Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision changed the makeup of Prairie View A&M University’s student body. Integration brought the first four white students to the university in 1964, but an even more significant change was the decrease in the number of the academically talented students on campus. The Brown v. Board of Education decision had opened more doors, and the above-average students were going elsewhere. Desegregation changed the ethnic diversity of the campus and increased the number of students who needed remedial help to succeed in college. Just as historically white institutions like the University of Texas and Texas A&M University set up scholarships restricted to African American recipients, Prairie View A&M University set up scholarships specifically to attract white recipients.
The scale tipped back the other way in 1996, when the Cheryl Hopwood and Stephanie Haynes v. the State of Texas and the Regents of the University of Texas decision made race-restricted scholarships illegal. Regardless, Prairie View A&M University continues to attract students from diverse backgrounds. “The idea is to so strengthen the program at Prairie View A&M University that any student graduating from high school will make a choice on factors not based on race, but based on what [Prairie View A&M University has] to offer,” says Jackson. But it has been a challenge. “We have improved on our retention with African American students and we’re working on improvement of Caucasian students and Hispanic students. But that is a problem, especially when you have a majority of one group versus the other,” explains Jackson. Currently, 11 percent of Prairie View A&M University students are of a race other than African American, 3 percent fewer than in 1995.
Another problem is that most of the non-minority students live off campus. “It’s like they’re commuters,” says Ronnie Davis, Jr., the president of the Student Government Association. “So when they drive in to campus, it’s to go to class. So there’s not necessarily a lot of interaction unless you’re in class. Now the ones that do stay on campus, they pretty much play sports,” explains Davis. Jackson acknowledges that a diversified campus will take time. But as for the question regarding the need for Prairie View A&M University in this day and age, Jackson says: “[Prairie View A&M University] has been the workhorse for higher education among African Americans, especially in Texas. It’s earned its stripes. The truth is that if not for discrimination, Prairie View A&M University should have never even been born . . . Institutions are the embodiment of people and they take on a life of their own. So Prairie View A&M University has a recognized niche in this society, in this state, and in this world. And it is just as vibrant and alive as Texas A&M University or any university in Texas.”