America's Oldest Historically Black Private College Is On the Verge of Losing Its Accreditation. Can It Be Saved?

Lost in Wilberforce

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Back in Mishoe's office, I mention that low enrollment actually sort of enhances the family dynamic. College-as-family-reunion. Mishoe says yes yes yes, quietly when she agrees with what you're saying, and reiterates points in accordance with their significance.

"Ultimately, it's about relationships," Mishoe says for the sixth or seventh time — this is key, then. "Anywhere you go, it's about relationships. And the relationships formed here are family relationships."

Case in point: Coach Terry Futrell and Stephen Knox, a 24-year-old who has arrived this morning from Southern California. Knox is a handsome, if lanky, point guard who has just driven two-and-a-half straight days to attend Wilberforce at the behest of Futrell.

Knox lost six hours because of a flat tire in Arizona and he's not happy about it. He was already cutting it close. It was only through Futrell's advocacy and an instructor's lenience that he got to leave summer school at L.A.'s Harbor Junior College a couple days early and start at Wilberforce a couple days late. His decision, from inception to execution, took less than a week.

After the tire got repaired, he pummeled headlong across the continent until Indianapolis, where, dog tired, he slept for a few hours outside Lucas Oil stadium. He logged the final leg in a daze, rattling his head to keep his eyes open.

When I meet him, he still hasn't slept. He was able to drop anchor, briefly, at a dorm room just to set his bags down, but then he had to meet with the registrar, and he still needs to sort out financial aid — Futrell insists that all his players do work-study — and iron out a class schedule before tomorrow. Futrell is guiding him through all of this with patience and pride.

Mishoe and Bernardino and the administrative gang are already gushing about young Knox, the man who moved hell and high water to attend the oldest HBCU in the land. This is the story they want me to tell. Trevelino Keller couldn't have choreographed this if they tried.

But the truth is, Knox just wanted to play basketball. He'd been playing in Los Angeles and knew his eligibility wouldn't last forever — he's got one year left, in fact. He said he wanted to see more of the country while he still could.

"I had heard something about it being the oldest HBCU," Knox says, "and I wanted to see Ohio. I grew up in Phoenix, and have been in California, and I'm just the type of person who likes to see as many places as possible. This is real different."

The other truth is that Knox is an exceptional man, and so is Terry Futrell, who kept vigil by his cell phone as his prospect chugged across America. Futrell walked Knox through a harrowing process when he arrived to make sure he felt at home. And all he knew about Knox was that he was 6'3," and would come if he could.

So Futrell asked.

The willingness to ask for help, though, or lack thereof, has been perceived by some alumni as a hurdle for many HBCUs, whose boards are often narrowly comprised of church officials and provincialist alumni. But Mishoe says a broadening is necessary, not just for the board but for the community as a whole.

"Honest to goodness, I see this as a wonderful opportunity to reinvent Wilberforce," she says, "to make some wonderful changes and modifications. And we'll accept all the help we can get."

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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