Does George H. W. Bush Deserve a Statue at a Black College?

Hampton University alumni object to honor for the late president, noting his link to Reagan administration and the Willie Horton ad.

February 4, 2019
Statue of George H. W. Bush at Hampton U

Legacy Park at Hampton University features statues of prominent Americans, most of them African American heroes -- people like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama and Rosa Parks. Last week a new statue went up in the park, and some alumni and others are asking why. The statue is of George H. W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, who died last year.

The Hampton announcement of the statue noted that Bush has a long association with the United Negro College Fund, going back to his undergraduate years at Yale University, where he founded a campus group to raise money for UNCF. Further, the university noted that Bush, as president, appointed members to a federal advisory board on black colleges, which was charged with fostering connections between historically black colleges and federal agencies. And the statement noted that President Bush delivered the commencement address at Hampton in 1991. William Harvey, president at Hampton, said that he considered Bush a friend.

The announcement didn't note that Jimmy Carter and every subsequent president has appointed members of the advisory board on black colleges.

As news spread, black-oriented publications started to raise questions about why a black college would honor Bush.

Bush's support for the UNCF was long-standing, and he is credited with promoting the organization and helping it raise money. But Bush was -- in his presidency and now after his death -- disliked by many students and alumni of historically black colleges.

Much of the anger toward Bush relates to the Willie Horton ad in his successful presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis.

A CNN article about the ad said, "The TV ad is now considered one of the most racially divisive in modern political history because it played into white fear and African-American stereotypes." And the Willie Horton ad wasn't the only time Bush was seen as engaged in racial politics. Running for the U.S. Senate (unsuccessfully) in 1964, he criticized the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which banned discrimination in employment, housing and voter registration, among other areas), saying, "The new civil rights act was passed to protect 14 percent of the people. I’m also worried about the other 86 percent.” (When a few years later he was elected to the U.S. House, Bush did vote in favor of a law to ban housing discrimination.)

Student opposition to Bush surprised some leaders of black colleges during his presidency. In 1989, Howard University appointed Lee Atwater, Bush's campaign manager and subsequently chair of the Republican Party, to the university board. Hundreds of students took over the administration building, and Atwater eventually stepped down from the board. The students continued to protest, saying that the appointment showed how out of touch James Cheek, who had been president since 1968, was with students. Cheek then resigned.

When Bush gave the commencement address at Hampton, two-thirds of the graduates participated in a silent protest during the ceremony.

Image of a woman wearing a blue T-shirt with the words "Our Legacy? Tear Down George HW Bush Statue at Hampton & the Negroes Who Put It There."Some of those students are among those, as alumni, organizing to protest the statue. A T-shirt is being sold (at right). A petition is gathering support, noting that Bush was a loyal member of the Reagan administration, whose policies, the petition says, hurt African Americans.

The petition, referencing the Willie Horton ad, says that Bush "ran ads during his campaign for presidency that were straight out of the playbook on how to dog-whistle racists."

Adds the petition: "It is an absolute embarrassment, that the institution that produced Booker T. Washington, Mary Jackson, Alberta King, and thousands of others that have stood on their shoulders, that the Board of Trustees and ultimately the university's long term president, William R. Harvey somehow found it morally acceptable to memorialize this man on our beautiful campus."

Hampton University did not respond to a request for comment on the petition.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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