On January 21, Buzzfeed News published a detailed story about sexual violence against students at women’s college Spelman by students at neighboring men’s college Morehouse. The two colleges, among the highest ranked historically black colleges and universities (or HBCUs) in the country, are often jointly referred to as ‘SpelHouse’. But beneath the facade of brotherliness is a persistent and troubling history of sexual violence. Using the stories of two Spelman students who came forward after being raped by Morehouse students, Buzzfeed reporter Anita Badejo explores the sexual assault cultures and policies at SpelHouse. Here are some surprising things she found;
2. When a Spelman student reported being gang-raped by Morehouse students in 1996, a Morehouse chaplain suggested she brought it on herself.
“In 1996, a Spelman student reported being gang-raped by four Morehouse students, which spawned tough talk at Morehouse about the unacceptability of abusing women. Yet there was also overwhelming support on campus for the men, including the suggestion from a chapel dean during a worship service that “women bring abuse upon themselves because of their attitudes and their dress.””3. When two Spelman students reported being raped in 2006, Morehouse’s student government demanded an apology from Spelman students for the protests that followed.
“Ten years later, in 2006, two Spelman students reported that they had been individually raped by Morehouse students. As chronicled by the documentary Broken Social Contracts, made by a Spelman graduate, Morehouse’s Student Government Association issued a statement condemning subsequent protests and demanding an apology from Spelman activists for what Kuumba described as “disturbing their intellectual atmosphere.” One Morehouse student reacted by commenting, “At least it was Morehouse sperm.””4. A Spelman student who tweeted about the issue of sexual assault at SpelHouse was ordered to “cease and desist” by Morehouse’s dean.
“Melanie’s roommate and best friend, Yemisi “Yemi” Miller-Tonnet, has felt similar disappointments with Spelman’s administration. Yemi, who survived a sexual assault in high school that she didn’t report, said she has several friends besides Melanie at Spelman who’ve been assaulted by Morehouse students. At one point, in March 2014, she tweeted, “I am only a freshman and I personally know 3 people who have been raped by a man of Morehouse. What are we going to do to stop this?” She was angry, but unsurprised, when a Morehouse student responded, asking her to stop for risk of ruining Morehouse’s image. “The rapists that are on Your campus are who’s tarnishing your image sir,” she replied. “Direct your comments toward your brothers.”
However, Yemi was taken aback when, two days later, Dean Ferguson emailed her regarding an “alleged violation.” A Morehouse student had read Yemi’s tweets, in which she had neither named anyone nor used any identifiers, and nevertheless thought they were referring to him. “The young man alleges that you are calling him a rapist online when no case has been adjudicated to determine responsibility,” Ferguson wrote. “Please see me immediately.” She asked that, until the meeting, Yemi “cease and desist with all activity.” Yemi said she ultimately received no punishment for the tweets, but that she was encouraged to channel her energy into campus-sanctioned programming rather than addressing the issue online. She has persisted, however, to continue to tweet about sexual violence at SpelHouse.”
“After reading a personal statement of what had happened that night, Victoria said she was barraged with questions from the students, many of which made her feel as if she was the one whose conduct was in question.6. Hall’s attacker was found in violation of Morehouse policy on sexual assault, but not expelled from the school.
“Why were you in his room at 9 at night?”
“Well, if you weren’t there to have sex, then why did you go?”
“What were you wearing?””
“His punishment: 40 hours of unspecified community service and the completion of an “online sexual harassment training program and Morehouse College’s violence against women program.”7. When Hall chose to report her rape to police Morehouse claimed they lost her incident report and did not know where her attacker was (although he was still enrolled at the time.)
According to the Morehouse pamphlet “What College Men Should Know About Sexual Assault Rape and Sexual Battery,” the “likely” outcome of a student being found responsible for committing sexual assault is suspension or expulsion.”
“Because Morehouse has a police department, it’s customary for them to conduct investigations before referring cases to city authorities for further action. Yet when she went to Morehouse in order to press charges, they told her they had lost her original incident report… Though her assailant, a senior, was two weeks away from graduating, she said the officers told her that they didn’t know where he was.”8. Morehouse has made steps to improve its record on sexual assault but it is currently under investigation by the Department of Education for violating Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in education.
“[Morehouse’s general counsel and chief of staff Lacrecia] Cade, who arrived at Morehouse in 2014, said the college has made a number of steps in the past year, including using local investigators for Title IX cases (rather than someone out of state, like Houston), conducting joint investigations with Spelman, and instituting the online campus training program Haven for first-year students, athletes, resident advisers, student leaders, and faculty.”9. Morehouse president John Silvanus Wilson Jr. has expressed hesitance to place full blame for sexual assault on Morehouse students, invoking false rape reporting and stereotypes about black men.
“President Wilson also brought up false reporting claims. “It’s a tightrope, because you on the other hand don’t want them to think, Wow, all I have to do is accuse someone to get back at them. … You’ve got to privilege truth.” (The most widely accepted statistics put the percentage of false rape reports at 2–8%.)
He also dismissed the idea that a fear of pathologizing students at an all-black men’s school would keep Spelmanites from coming forward, or keep Morehouse from fairly adjudicating their cases. “That is completely absurd,” he said. “The matter of fact is we have a campus of young men and some of them are going to use bad judgment and some of them are going to use very bad judgment, and they’re not protected by the expectations that we have for them.” But he also cautioned, “There’s a stereotype [about] black males and you can walk right into it with a story like this.””
“[They’re] trying to protect Morehouse at the expense of Spelman, which doesn’t make any sense to me,” [Yemisi “Yemi” Miller-Tonnet] said. “It’s just a really deep-rooted sense of protecting the black man. … But everyone is victimizing the black woman, and where is that narrative?”
“As is characteristic of respectability politics, the purpose of Morehouse’s conservative definitions for how the model black man should look, think, and act has historically been to defend its students against the stereotypes and scrutiny of a society that broadly criminalizes them. “[It’s] this idea of one that was suited and booted and had on bow ties and was able to speak the King’s English and negotiate within this broader context of white rule,” [Morehouse Psychology Chair David Wall] Rice said. Given the U.S.’s long history of portraying black men as aggressive — and as rapists of white women — conversations about the ways in which some black men may nevertheless violate black women can feel next to impossible. “It’s hard to understand your gender privilege when you are in very blatant ways oppressed because of race,” said Jamila Lyn, a Morehouse English professor who teaches the introductory writing course “Writing as Community Activism: Reimagining Black Masculinity, Ending Sexual Violence.” She noted how recent activism around black extrajudicial killings and the Black Lives Matter movement have largely left out the experiences of black women. “The attack is [seen as] against black men. They’re the moving targets.”11. Some Spelman students fear speaking out about their assaults for fear of being seen as race traitors.
At Spelman, students must balance the ostensible empowerment that comes from being on a campus full of young black women with the expectation that they nevertheless align themselves with the interests of their brothers next door. “One thing about Spelman that has to be made clear is it is a women’s college, but it’s not a feminist college,” said [associate director of Spelman’s Women’s Research and Resource Center M. Bahati] Kuumba.”
Yemi, sitting on the couch beside her, agreed. At HBCUs like Spelman and Morehouse, she explained, the burden to protect the reputations of their colleges is not only felt by administrators, but also by students. “What it means to preserve the image of an HBCU means a completely different thing than what it means to preserve the image of a white college,” she said. For black students at black colleges, speaking out becomes not only a reflection of their school, but also of their entire race. Among the questions Yemi asks herself when she speaks publicly about SpelHouse: Is someone going to racialize this? Are they going to interpret it in a way that’s based on stereotypes and stigmas that I don’t want to be applied?
You can read the full report here. Ladies, please share your thoughts.