A white gunman on Saturday killed three Black people at a Dollar General in Jacksonville, Florida — after he’d been chased from the campus of nearby Edward Waters University.
But the historically Black school is much more than a stop on the way to the site of a murderous rampage: Edward Waters looms large in Jacksonville because it’s nourished the city’s Black community for more than 150 years.
“Let me say for the record that this white supremacist presence at EWU didn’t happen by mere happenstance,” University President A. Zachary Faison Jr. said at a press conference on Monday. “He well knew where he was and what signal and message he might send had he been successful in his aim to commit this heinous act at the bastion and birthplace of Black higher education in this state.”
Jacksonville native Abel Bartley, a history professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, echoed some of these sentiments, and he told Capital B that the significance of the Florida HBCU has never been lost on him.
“My oldest brother went to Edward Waters, and his wife also went to Edward Waters. I knew that it was the college for African Americans in the city,” said Bartley, author of the 2000 book, Keeping the Faith: Race, Politics, and Social Development in Jacksonville, Florida, 1940-1970. “The symbolism of a Black person being called a professor, [of Black] people with advanced degrees, [of] teaching, [of] having all of that, is impressive. We didn’t see a lot of that.”
Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters said at a press conference on Monday that he doesn’t believe that the university was the intended target for the shooting.
“Based off what we saw: him stopping off at the Family Dollar and working at a Dollar Tree previously and then him going to Dollar General, that was his intent the whole time,” Waters said. “Why that store? Still hard to tell.”
Founded by members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1866, a year after the Civil War ended, Edward Waters is the oldest HBCU in Florida.
Initially, the school was named Brown Theological Institute by the Rev. William G. Steward, the state’s first AME pastor, and it was seen as a means of educating newly freed Black people.
“Edward Waters was a project of the African Methodist Episcopal Church,” David Jamison, a history professor at Edward Waters and a board member of the Jacksonville Historical Society, told WJAX-TV in 2022. “It was a teachers’ college, and the idea is if we can train people to teach, then that will sort of start the next generation of the Black community here in Jacksonville. So, they were going to educate these people who would have been educated if it had been legal.”
Edward Waters has undergone a number of name changes over the course of its history. In the 1870s, beleaguered by financial difficulties, it shut down. It reopened in 1883, going by East Florida Conference High School and then later by East Florida Scientific and Divinity High School.
When the school began to expand its academic program over the next decade, the name changed again. In 1892, the school became Edward Waters College — a tribute to the AME Church’s third bishop. It received accreditation as a junior college in 1955, implemented a four-year curriculum in 1960, and earned accreditation as a four-year institution from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges in 1979. The institution gained university status in 2021 with the introduction of an online MBA as its first master’s program.
Crucially, Edward Waters functions as a symbol of Black resilience in Jacksonville. In 1901, the Great Fire, one of the largest blazes in U.S. history, wiped out the school, and swallowed more than 2,000 buildings across the city; seven people were killed. In 1904, the Board of Trustees secured new land to rebuild the campus.
Edward Waters has intimate ties with the fight for Black liberation. A. Philip Randolph, a prominent labor rights advocate and one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s lieutenants, attended the school for two years before transferring to another Jacksonville HBCU, the Cookman Institute. Randolph would later become a leader of the Civil Rights Movement: He co-founded the Black political and literary magazine The Messenger in 1917, and helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
To honor the revered activist’s legacy, Edward Waters launched the A. Philip Randolph Institute for Law, Race, Social Justice and Economic Policy in 2021, in the wake of the uprisings that followed the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
Faison called the program a “timely initiative for all of us, given the recent events that have occurred throughout the country … heightening our collective scrutiny of matters of race, law, and the engagement of African American citizens with law enforcement, as well as the ongoing plight for social and economic equity that has come even more to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Recently, the school has confronted an issue that also has imperiled other HBCUs: bomb threats. In early 2022, dozens of HBCUs — including Edward Waters — received such threats. The FBI announced in November that an unnamed minor is believed to be responsible for a majority of them, and the investigation is ongoing.
Per The Atlantic’s Adam Harris, the determination that HBCUs have displayed to keep their students safe and their doors open in the face of the bomb threats exemplifies the courage that’s been in their DNA from the very beginning, because the U.S. “has a long and violent history of trying to keep Black people out of classrooms.”
This bravery has prevailed again over the past few days, since the racist shooting, as Florida’s first HBCU continues to battle against a thick fog of grief.
“Edward Waters, like many institutions, has seen its ebbs and flows, but it’s always and at every turn persisted as a leading change agent here in the city of Jacksonville and beyond,” Faison said on Monday.
Capital B Criminal Justice Reporter Christina Carrega contributed to this story, which includes information from the Associated Press.
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