After Jacksonville shootings, historically Black colleges discuss security worries, remain vigilant

People march to honor the victims of a deadly shooting in Jacksonville, Florida on August 28, 2023. Photo by Saul Martinez for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Before the fatal shootings of three Black residents in Jacksonville, Florida, over the weekend, the gunman, a young white man with swastikas painted on his rifle, pulled into a parking lot at Edward Waters University and began putting on tactical gear. Students reported him, a campus police officer approached and he sped off in his vehicle having never identified himself.

The shootings dredged up memories of another infamous racist attack in the city nearly 60 years ago known as Ax Handle Saturday. In that incident, a mob of Ku Klux Klan members armed with ax handles chased and beat 17-year-old Nat Glover after he left his part-time job washing dishes at a local diner.

Glover, who graduated from and later served as president of Edward Waters, is saddened by the shootings and also the gunman’s appearance on the campus of his alma mater, which was established in 1866 as Florida’s first historically Black college.

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"We are just in an environment now that is toxic as it relates to race," said Glover, also a former Jacksonville sheriff. "This notion of us against them, Black versus white, is being promoted."

While the shootings took place at a Dollar General store in the predominantly Black community of New Town less than a mile (a little over a kilometer) away, the gunman’s earlier appearance at Edward Waters has prompted new fears about public safety for African Americans and the educational institutions that have long served them.

It comes amid a spate of recent threats to historically Black colleges and universities nationwide — last year alone, the FBI investigated bomb threats that were made against more than 20 HBCUs in states including Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, universities were easily accessible to the public, but many schools now require IDs to cross through campus gates and enter buildings. Following last year’s bomb threats, some universities have increased the presence of law enforcement officers, social workers and counselors to address safety and health concerns.

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Earlier this year Howard University in Washington, D.C., was one of four Black institutions that received more than $200,000 from the U.S. Department of Education to address security. Howard said it would fund two case managers who will conduct wellness visits and a field training specialist who will provide staff with security training.

On Monday, FBI Director Christopher Wray and other agency officials held a call with HBCU leaders, as well as faith and civil rights leaders and law enforcement partners, to discuss the shooting, which it is investigating as a hate crime for the shooter’s racist motivations. The bureau, which has opened a civil rights probe, declined to provide a list of call participants.

Though it remains unclear whether Edward Waters was an intended target of the shooter, university President Zachary Faison Jr. said during a news conference Monday that the school community is grateful security thwarted "what we believe were the original aims of this white supremacist domestic terrorist, to come to the state of Florida’s first historically Black university and wreak murderous havoc."

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"It was not by happenstance that he came here. He could have gone anywhere," Faison said. "Align that with the fact that he said he wanted to kill N———. He came to where he thought African Americans would be. It’s also not lost on me that he came to New Town community, the heart of the Black community in Jacksonville."

The shooting Saturday occurred as thousands of people gathered in the nation’s capital to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. It was just the latest in recent years in which Black people were explicitly targeted, including last year at a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York.

Houses of worship, grocery stores and other public spaces have historically been targets for acts of domestic terror against Black Americans.

"To target a college, a university, a church, a synagogue ... this is a pattern," said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. "University campuses, like many campuses, are open spaces, welcoming to the community and to students. And now, in light of this threat, everyone’s got to be more vigilant and tighten up security."

Glover agreed with that sentiment, saying, "It would be almost criminal if we didn’t take notice and make sure we do everything we can to secure and present an image that these places where Black people congregate are secure."

While he was president of Edward Waters, from 2011 to 2018, he said, he tried to do just that, working with the Jacksonville Police Department to place a substation with officers on the campus.

Most campus police departments at Black colleges are certified law enforcement agencies with sworn officers, according to the HBCU Law Enforcement Executives and Administrators. The officers are certified through their respective states, as are other local police departments.

Lt. Antonio Bailey, who approached the 21-year-old gunman in Jacksonville, reported his license plate to city police and was hailed as a hero by Faison, has sought to distance himself from that label.

"I’m no hero. ... It was the act of the students that came forth as to why I was able to do what I did that day," Bailey said Monday.

Bailey added that he wished he had had more authority to detain the gunman before he continued on to the Dollar General. At the time, he did not see a weapon on the man, who had previously posted racist writings online and killed himself after the shootings.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Republican presidential candidate who has been widely criticized as employing antagonistic rhetoric on issues of race and social justice, has denounced the shootings and offered $1 million to Edward Waters for security, along with another $100,000 to families of those who were killed.

But state Rep. Angie Nixon, whose district includes Jacksonville, said DeSantis cannot simply throw money at a problem that he helped create.

"Let me be perfectly clear: no amount of money can erase the pain caused by years of marginalization and oppression," she said in a statement posted Monday on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. "It’s time for him to truly reckon with the damage he has caused, to apologize for the harm he has inflicted, and to actively work towards undoing the racist system he’s helped uphold and grow."

The DeSantis campaign defended the governor, saying he "has condemned these racially motivated murders repeatedly in the strongest language possible."

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