STATE COLLEGE, Pa.—The recent unsolved deaths of two
Black men have racial tensions high in this university town despite
recent concessions by university officials to expand Black programs and
enhance diversity at the school.
On April 24, the first body was found in Bradford County
near the Penn State Wilkes-Barre campus. The victim, a 6-foot Black male
dressed in black, died from a gunshot wound, according to a police
Then on April 27, a second body was found. This time,
the body was in proximity to where an earlier letter threatening a Black
student said a body would be found in Centre County, where the
university is located.
According to a Penn State University police report
obtained by The Final Call, the victim was found within 20
miles of the campus. He was a Black male and died of a gunshot wound.
State and university police maintain that the death does
not seem to be related to the university. An April 28 university police
memo states: "The State Police have no reason to believe that this
apparent homicide has any relationship to the hate mail incidents that
occurred at Penn State. Moreover, no Penn State students have been
The homicides occurred in an atmosphere of death threats
and hate mail received since last October by Black students at Penn
State. During that time, Black Student Caucus president and senior
broadcast journalism major LaKeisha Wolf received a series of hate
letters informing her, among other threats, "We ought to tar and feather
you ... stupid Black b----. You keep your trap shut or we’ll shut it for
Ms. Wolf, age 21, a petite woman clad in an ivory
bulletproof vest for her protection, met with The Final Call May
4, along with other members of the Penn State Student Black Caucus, to
detail their turbulent year.
"In October five letters were written targeting four
people—a university trustee, two other students and myself," Ms. Wolf
recalled. "The letters were all very personal and threatened violence."
According to the students, this was nothing new for Penn
State. They provided The Final Call with documentation which
shows a pattern of hate mail activity dating back decades. In response
to the latest threats, students organized the Gye Nyame ad hoc committee
and started to communicate with the university administration on the
highest level concerning its diversity policy and student safety.
"Our greatest fear was that administrators would
continue to ignore the climate of hate and the incidents of harassment
that have become a feature of life at the university," said student
leader Brian Favors.
University President Graham B. Spanier and State College
Police Chief Tom Harmon were unavailable for comment to The Final
Call after repeated attempts. Dr. Terrell Jones, a Black
administrator and vice president for Educational Equality, expressed
concern that Black faculty and administrators were not used more
effectively by the students.
"I think in some ways the Caucus drove a wedge right
through the Black community early in the year," he said. "Some of the
tactics they used ... we had some people come up and say basically that
any Black faculty who were here could not be trusted, they were only
here picking up a pay check. It was not until we were able to get senior
Black faculty back into negotiations were we able to make progress," Dr.
The fall semester ended as student leaders won a modest
victory with Faculty Senate members and President Spanier signing an
agreement that the university had not met its initiative to foster
diversity at the institution. It also agreed to meet with Black Caucus
student leaders to address the issues.
As 2000 faded into 2001, according to Caucus vice
president Sharleen Morris, it became evident that only lip service was
being paid to the issues the students had brought to the forefront.
"We also learned that the hate mail was more widespread
than we had been led to believe. Members of the football team were
especially affected," she said.
Emboldened, the students took their fight to Harrisburg,
the state capital, eliciting the support of the state Legislative Black
Caucus. "These are our children up there, figuratively and literally,
and we have a responsibility to our children to see that they’re in a
safe environment. Anything we can do to assure that, we are going to
do," State Rep. John Myers (D-Phila.) vowed.
In a symbolic gesture supported by Black legislators in
mid April, the state House of Representatives voted to trim $9,520 from
Penn State’s millions in appropriations, sending an immediate signal to
At this point, according to Ms. Wolf, the proverbial
roof fell in. She received another hate letter. This one much more
explicit. The letter, obtained by The Final Call, stated, in
part: "I have tried with little success to be patient with you stupid
litttle black b----, dont you realize i (sic) could have killed you ten
times by now. .... We mean business just how serious we are, have the
authorities search ... the young black buck must have been of no account
even to niggers, because no one even missed him, he put up one hell of a
"This letter caused us grave concern," Ms. Wolf stated.
"We felt the university was negligent in warning the Black community.
Because of this, we felt we were forced to take action."
On April 21, Penn State hosted its annual Blue and White
scrimmage football game. Steeped in tradition, it attracts alumni and
students. At the playing of the national anthem, 26 members of the
Student Black Caucus slipped onto the field and locked arms on the 50
yard line in prayer. The story was carried on every major TV broadcast
in the state.
What happened next is something right out of Mississippi
in the 1960s, all of the Caucus members agreed.
The participants were arrested and charged with
misdemeanor offenses. The next day, not only were their names published
in the local paper, but their addresses as well, thus creating a hit
list for hate.
"This caused us to go into panic mode," Ms. Wolf said.
"We were now afraid to leave the student union building and return to
In response to the threats, the school organized a "No
Hate at Penn State march" on April 24, which the Black students
physically halted, according to Ms. Wolf. "President Graham Spanier fled
the scene of the rally and refused further negotiations with the Black
Student Caucus," she said.
The students, fearful, set up a village in the student
union center and began to camp out in protest. Soon thereafter, their
worst fears were realized—the first body was found.
According to Ms. Wolf, the students were now near
hysteria and began seeking the assistance of national organizations. It
was during this time that Minister Angelo Muhammad of the Nation of
Islam Harrisburg, Pa. study group was contacted.
"He made several trips to State College and provided
immediate assistance to the student protesters," Ms. Wolf said.
"Brothers from the F.O.I. (Fruit of Islam) gave the students a sense of
calm and safety when on campus, and Min. Angelo has offered spiritual
counseling and sound advice for all those involved," she added.
Dr. Terrell Jones concurred during his interview with
The Final Call, crediting Min. Angelo with getting the
students and President Spanier back to the negotiation table. He said
the local NAACP attempted to intervene, but could not gain the students’
trust. As a result Min. Angelo’s efforts, further agreements recently
were reached between students and the administration.
On May 3 the university agreed to establish an Africana
Studies Research Center, upgrade the number of faculty in the African
American Studies Department, strengthen current diversity requirements
and restructure the Vice Provost for Educational Equality position,
ending the 10 day sit in.
The situation at Penn State is being investigated by the
state attorney general’s office, the FBI as well as Senator Arlene
Specter (R-Pa.). During a May 4 meeting with students, Frank L. Brown,
Esq., legislative counsel for Sen. Specter, guaranteed them, "I will
personally see that Sen. Specter is apprised of your situation."