Ivy Taylor was in Jackson on Tuesday, Feb. 1, three hours away from Rust College, the small historically Black college in Holly Springs where she is president. She woke up early to prepare for a meeting of the Mississippi Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. She brushed her teeth and washed her face. Then she got the call.
Hours earlier, her chief of staff explained, the campus safety officer on duty had received a bomb threat. There was a device on a campus that was going to go off at noon, the anonymous caller had said before making a derogatory remark about Black people.College security had already swept the campus. The next step, Taylor’s chief of staff said, was to notify students, faculty and staff that they needed to shelter-in-place.
Taylor’s initial thought was, “Oh my god, I’m not there.” Then she wondered, “Do we have the local law enforcement able to detect whether it’s a real threat or not?”
Taylor placed a call to the FBI field office in Jackson while her staff worked to find a nearby jurisdiction that had the technology to detect explosives. Soon, bomb-sniffing dogs were crawling under cars and through bushes on campus.
Since January, more than two dozen HBCUs, including all but one in Mississippi, have received bomb threats, leading to cancelled classes and campus lockdowns. So far, all the threats have been unsubstantiated, and the FBI is investigating them as a racially motivated hate crime. Students and faculty at HBCUs have widely viewed the empty threats as an unsuccessful attempt to intimidate them.
At Rust College, the roughly 600 students were largely nonplussed by the threats, said Zachary Wilson, the SGA vice president. The students’ sense of safety, he said, was due to the university’s swift reaction to the threat, but also the steps it takes on a daily basis to make them feel like they belong.
By late afternoon, students at Rust College were back out on campus, hanging out in the student center and joking around in the plaza. It felt like campus had snapped back to normal, Wilson said.
“Their mission was to deter our mission for Black excellence and Black unity in the United States of America,” Wilson said. “We are undeterred, and they failed. They simply failed.”
One reason why many students felt that way, Wilson said, was because they trusted the administration to support them. Many woke up to the alert that Taylor and her chief-of-staff had worked to send. From their dormitories, students could see the police cars at the school gates.
Jamila Branch, a senior biology major, said she felt calm as she sheltered-in-place in her dorm. She said she feels like Rust College is a family to her, so when she saw the alert about the bomb threat, she wanted to help others on campus feel secure. That Tuesday morning, she immediately turned to her networks. She sent our texts to her group chats and to her fellow resident assistants in the girl’s dormitory. Branch said she made sure they knew they could come to her if they wanted to talk.
No one took her up on the offer, Branch said, because many students were already talking in the hallway about the threat. Branch said they were mainly trying to understand what motivated the callers to place the threat. Mostly, she said, students spent the hours sheltering-in-place by catching up on their homework.
“We’re a family so we leaned on each other,” Branch, a native of Osceola, Ark., said.
Taylor, who became president in 2020, said she doesn’t know if Rust College has experienced a bomb threat like this in the past. But the college has come under a different type of attack, particularly during the civil rights movement, for its role in housing Freedom Riders. In the 1960s, the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, a state agency tasked with upholding racism, targeted Rust College with a report that called it a “place for instructors, who are homosexuals and racial agitators.”
That’s a history that Taylor strives to uphold as president, she said, by not giving the unfounded threats too much credence.
“That’s what terrorism is about,” she said. “Manipulating your mind and your emotions so that you’re fearful of continuing on with your daily activities or the things you’re doing to advance a certain cause.”
Rather, she’s focused on how to keep upholding Rust College’s mission.
“That is still a threat to some people for Black people to be equipped and inspired for excellence, for Black people to be educated, for Black people to be leaders,” she said.
She wants her students to understand what she calls “the power of education.”
“I hope that is motivation for them to persist and graduate and go out there and make an impact and reach back and help others.”
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.