Students at a historically black school protest Betsy Devos’ commencement address


The education secretary once said that historically black colleges and universities were “the real pioneers of school choice.”

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a school choice event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 3, 2017. CREDIT: AP/Evan Vucci

Shouts, boos, and other acts of defiance met Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Wednesday when she delivered a keynote commencement address at a historically black college in Florida.

Many of the graduates loudly booed DeVos as soon as she began speaking at Bethune-Cookman University. They later turned their backs to her, according to The Washington Post. At one point, the college president told students that if they continued the behavior, their degrees would be mailed to them, according to Adam Harris, a higher education reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

DeVos said over loud boos, “We can choose to listen, be respectful and continue to learn from each other’s experience.”

Only a couple months ago, DeVos, a billionaire who became involved in education policy through her philanthropy and donations to Republican politicians, said historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were “the real pioneers of school choice,” showing an ignorance of the realities of racial segregation in the U.S.

At the time, the NAACP called her statement a “painful display of a fundamental misunderstanding of the tragic history of race and education in America.”

“To consider HBCUs as ‘real pioneers when it comes to school choice’ is a revisionist rendering of history, at best, and a blatant disregard for the legacy of segregation and resistance in America, at worst,” the NAACP said.

In the days before her speech at B-CU, students and alumni circulated a petition asking the school to choose another speaker for the commencement ceremony.

Students and alumni gave the school president, Edison O. Jackson, a petition with thousands of signatures. After students claimed administrators threatened and intimidated them for speaking out against her plans to speak at the school, the NAACP Florida State Conference called on Jackson to resign.

A 2010 graduate of the college, Dominik Whitehead, told, “We’re holding President Trump, his administration and Betsy DeVos accountable for the things they’ve said and done … they can’t use us as a photo opportunity and think that we’re going to lay down and let it happen.”

A student at the college, Jasmine Smith, told CNN, “I believe [graduates] deserve a speaker who could relate to them as far as the struggle we go through within the education system, and I feel like she cannot relate in that aspect.”

On Friday, President Donald Trump falsely claimed that HBCUs “allocate benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity and gender,” in a statement attached to a spending bill. The statement suggested that construction funding for HBCUs could be unconstitutional. After making those statements, Trump assured HBCU leaders that his support was “unwavering.”

The Trump administration has demonstrated a poor understanding of history in general — and of African American historical figures in particular. Trump himself once appeared to suggest that Frederick Douglass was still alive, and the department of education’s Twitter account misspelled the name W.E.B. Du Bois.

Students at a historically black school protest Betsy Devos’ commencement address was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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