In September 1888, an aged Frederick Douglass made his second visit to a tiny abolitionist college in rural southern Michigan. He spoke on the looming presidential election, and his words have uncanny relevance today.
“In a Presidential canvass three things are always in order: First, we have to consider the character of the candidate,” he said in a typed version of the address that matches descriptions of the ones he gave at the college and elsewhere on that speaking tour. “A man in the presidential chair should stand for something more than a lucky and successful politician. He should be one among millions—a model man; one to whom the sons of after-coming generations can be referred as an example to them.”
Douglass went on to argue that voters should also consider the past actions of political parties when deciding how to cast their ballots. “The past is parent to the present, and it is only by the past that we are able properly to discern the future,” he said.
That tiny abolitionist school was Hillsdale College, my alma mater, now sometimes dubbed the “conservative Harvard.” At its heart Hillsdale is simply a liberal arts college, but its alumni pepper the Trump administration and its various lecture programs, online courses, and D.C. outpost serve as intellectual training ground for the conservative movement.
So when hundreds of Hillsdale alumni signed petitions in June asking the college to condemn historical injustices against black people in response to the George Floyd protests, the school was at a crossroads. Would the college that sent more of its sons to fight for the Union than any other Michigan school vocally oppose state violence against the descendants of slaves? Or would it reiterate, as it had in the past, “the danger of the Black Lives Matters movement”?
Hillsdale chose to be evasive.
“The College is told that it garners no honor now for its abolitionist past—or that it fails to live up to that past—but instead it must issue statements today. Statements about what?” read an open letter from leaders of the college, republished in the Wall Street Journal. “It must issue statements about the brutal and deadly evil of hating other people and/or treating them differently because of the color of their skin. That is, it must issue statements about the very things that moved the abolitionists whom the College has ever invoked.”
But Hillsdale, like all of America, ought to heed Douglass’s advice and take a good, hard look at its past. It must lament the evil and treasure the good. The college has more than abolitionists in its past—like many other institutions, it has a history of tangled, unexamined, internally competing racial views. Hillsdale has plenty of reasons to join the national reckoning on race.
Hillsdale was founded by abolitionist Baptists in 1844. It was the first college in the nation to prohibit discrimination based on race, sex, or religion in its charter. It fought efforts to segregate its ROTC unit in World War I. Its 1955 football team refused to play in a bowl game that barred its black players from the field.
But Hillsdale was not exempt from the racism that permeated educational institutions in the 20th century.
Hillsdale sat out the civil rights movement, as noted by the preeminent chronicler of the college’s history, Arlan Gilbert. The student newspaper, the Collegian, voiced some support of black protesters in the 1960s but was mostly mum on the topic. It did, however, reprint in 1960 an editorial that ran in the Duke student paper: “We would question the appropriateness of protesting against a Southern . . . custom by applying pressure on a private business establishment,” it read. “While we are for desegregation, we realize that the problem is complex and that no easy solution is possible.”
The college then found a president who would use apathy toward civil rights legislation to make it famous. When George Roche III became president of Hillsdale in 1971 at age 35, he was fresh from the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education, which in the previous decade had issued a steady stream of anti-civil-rights commentary of the type that animated the GOP’s “Southern strategy.” FEE authors defended private businesses’ right to discriminate against blacks, criticized the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, argued for a “hands-off” response to South African apartheid, and saw the civil rights movement primarily as a massive expansion of federal power. Roche echoed these arguments.
“The racial problem is still with us (as are innumerable other problems as well) but it ill-behooves us to destroy the American tradition of federalism in the course of attempted ‘solutions’ to our problems,” he wrote in 1967.
The future president of an abolitionist college also questioned whether the Civil War was necessary to end slavery, calling abolitionists “do-gooders” who pressured the United States into war but did not lead on the battlefield and wondering whether “the free market might have averted the Civil War.”
National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., a longtime friend of Hillsdale, was on hand to celebrate Roche’s appointment as president. Buckley in 1957 supported gradual, voluntary change from Jim Crow, because whites were “the advanced race”—a stance he later disavowed.
Roche made a name for Hillsdale. When in 1972 the federal government began to require colleges to track students by their race for the purposes of implementing anti-discrimination law, Roche led the college both to refuse race statistics and to cement its refusal of federal funds. He then trumpeted those refusals around the nation to win conservative praise and donors.
In 1973, under Roche’s leadership, one of the first editions of the college’s widely circulated digest of speeches, Imprimis, defended minority white rule of Zimbabwe and private discrimination. Imprimis also printed a response from the country’s white prime minister, Ian Smith, who wrote of the “backward races” and the “more sophisticated European and Asian races.”
The college continued to keep odious company. Segregationist James Kilpatrick, racist Sen. Strom Thurmond, and racist Jared Taylor, the editor of the white supremacist American Renaissance magazine, spoke at Hillsdale seminars in the following decades. Taylor argued in a college-sponsored lecture that minorities were genetically inferior and more suited to manual labor. Roche’s statement at the time did not specifically condemn the talk: “For 150 years we have prided ourselves on treating individuals on the basis of their own merit and anything that moves from that direction is not keeping with our mission.” The college still sells copies of Taylor’s lecture in its “Freedom Library Catalog.”
Though many Hillsdale professors are fiercely pro-Union, an odd strain of Lost Cause romanticism lingered at Hillsdale. In 2008, the Hillsdale-published reader for its required American history course included writings by Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. but also introduced an 1891 essay by Confederate apologist Basil Gildersleeve by praising him and saying that his view of the South had “universal validity.” Gildersleeve argued that the South had fought for states’ rights and “the cause of civil liberty,” not to defend slavery; the introduction was signed by a historian who also edited the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan.
In recent years the college has done little to voice sympathy for black Americans protesting police brutality. Imprimis, with more than 5 million subscribers, regularly points to black culture and black-on-black crime as the root causes of any ill treatment from police. For years Hillsdale speakers have pooh-poohed diversity.
Hillsdale as an institution does not endorse the racist alt-right and its hatred. The college’s current president, Larry Arnn, is no Roche; he loves Hillsdale’s abolitionist legacy, can recite Douglass and Lincoln by heart, and demonstrates his personal care for students of color. In 2016 he led the school to launch the Frederick Douglass scholarships, offering tuition, room and board to first-generation college students from disadvantaged school districts.
But the college has chosen to publicize voices that make the alt-right feel comfortable. For example, the college’s D.C. center last year hosted an excellent symposium with a Howard University scholar on black classical education. Her presentation did not make it into Imprimis, but a speech defending John C. Calhoun and Confederate monuments did.
Meanwhile, Hillsdale’s colorblindness has made it blind. The college continues to keep no records of students’ race and awards no financial aid on that basis. But in the 2018-2019 academic year, for example, it did offer four different scholarships to students of Norwegian, Lithuanian, or Polish descent and many more that gave preference to students from predominantly white areas. It also had a handful of scholarships for international students—from China, for example—and Hispanic students. It had none that explicitly gave preference to black Americans.
What has all this meant for black students at Hillsdale?
Hillsdale’s graduates are now nearly all white. Many American universities struggle to attract and retain students of color. But Hillsdale has given itself a special challenge and has not done enough to solve it. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a friend of the college, once critiqued conservatives’ attitude toward race as “indifference.” He could say the same of Hillsdale.
Since the 1980s Hillsdale’s black students at any given time have been able to count their total number on two hands, or some years even one. Roche told the Chicago Reader in 1996 that the school was being “outbid” for black students.
It wasn’t always this way. Thirty-one black students attended Hillsdale as it was beginning to parade its federal-tie-cutting in 1976—a larger slice of the student population than at many other Michigan schools at the time. The campus Blacks United club had a house, staged events for Black History Month and produced a play about Malcolm X’s life. By the mid-1980s, it disappeared from Hillsdale’s yearbooks.
Black students in the following decades gave mixed reviews of the school to the Collegian, while recounting a few chilling incidents. In 1991, the same year a Confederate flag hung in the first-floor window of one men’s dorm, two black students hung a Nelson Mandela poster on their door. After someone tore it down, they put up a picture of Malcolm X, only to find later the words “N—S GO HOME” scrawled on their door. They reported the incident to an administrator, who “in turn told them not to hang anymore posters of black leaders on their door, because it ‘invites racism,’” the Collegian wrote.
The experiences of recent black alumni have varied. Of the ten black former Hillsdale students I interviewed for this article, three had completely positive experiences at the school. “Some might see a lack of diversity and say, ‘Wait there’s a problem,’ but for me I never really had an issue,” said Joseph Nchia, class of 2017. “It’s just one of those things.”
Kayla Fletcher, class of 2014, loved Hillsdale and was drawn to the school because it does not consider race in admissions. “If I got into a school like Hillsdale, it was just because I was good enough to get into a school like Hillsdale,” she said. “That’s what mattered to me.”
Others describe a painful four years. Christian Campbell, class of 2010, stayed at Hillsdale for financial reasons but grew tired of the constant stares and questions from fellow students about what sport he played, if he could dance and rap, whether they could touch his hair. “The stupidity and ignorance just got me,” he said.
Some chose to transfer out. Thad Wilson attended Hillsdale in 2006 but left the following year, primarily because of finances but also because of race. While a coach and two professors were kind, he said, one classmate asked him pointed racial questions constantly, such as: “You like fried chicken, right?”
“Not having the ability to really see a black person who was in the same shoes I was in was difficult,” he said.
For most of the students I spoke to, Hillsdale was a mixed bag of friends and classes they loved and experiences they wished had been better. Keyona Shabazz, class of 2017, loves Hillsdale but recalled two different students calling her a “Negress” or “n—-r” on multiple occasions. While Hillsdale gave her a good liberal arts education, she said, it rarely discussed the black experience in America.
“Hillsdale has done its populace a disservice by taking itself out of the conversation,” Shabazz said. “You can’t pat yourself on the back for who you used to be.”
Shabazz’s fellow alumni should look hard at the school’s indifference to race. We should question why we have a student body so white that many of the black students feel out of place. And we should think about how the school can show all its students that the good, the true, the beautiful belong to them, and that they belong at the school.
Hillsdale wishes to critique illiberalism on the left, but it will lack the moral authority to do so without critiquing illiberalism and racism on the right. The college’s liberal values should put it at the forefront of the fight to defend Frederick Douglass’s vision for America. In the months before his second visit to Hillsdale, Douglass toured the South and witnessed how Reconstruction had failed former slaves. He hoped that his country would change; he hoped that his party, the Republican party, would lead that change.
“The national honor—the redemption of our national pledge to the freedmen, the supremacy of the Constitution in the fullness of its spirit and in the completeness of its letter over all the states of the Union alike—is an incomparably greater interest than all others. It touches the soul of the nation,” Douglass said in a speech that year. “I simply say to the Republican party: Those things ye ought to have done and not to have left the others undone, and the present is the time to enforce this lesson.”
With that last sentence Douglass borrowed from Jesus, and likewise Hillsdale should heed the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” The college has a chance to change for the better, to change America for the better, to be better than the whims of the right wing rather than tethered to them. If it does not, many of its alumni will have run out of faith, just as Douglass warned he might with the GOP: “If it fails to do all this, I for one shall welcome the bolt which shall scatter it into a thousand fragments.”