Response to HBCU bomb threats swift, FBI names persons of interest

Devan Vilfrard
Zachary Bell

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

Reaction was swift to bomb threats at more than 10 HBCUs on the first day of Black History Month, with local politicians, clergy and college students calling the threats racist.

The threats to HBCUs across the country turned out to be a hoax and by midweek the FBI had identified six persons of interest, according to NBC. Howard University in Washington, D.C., was one of the first to get the threat and immediately went into shelter-in-place lockdown.

Multiple HBCUs across the South also received the threat and some were still in lockdown mode as of last Wednesday.

Edward Waters College in Jacksonville was one of the Florida HBCUs to receive a threat.

FAMU, which in 1999 was attacked by Lawrence Lombardi with pipe bombs in a restroom at Lee Hall, wasn’t threatened. However, students reported a heightened presence of officers from the university’s police department on campus.

Devan Vilfrard, president of FAMU NAACP, said the perpetrators accomplished what they wanted by creating a sense of uneasiness.

They wanted to “cause some panic and discomfort in the Black community at HBCUs as we start Black History month,” he said. “But as we always do, we push through. There are always bad actors who want to see the Black community not prevail.”

 He suspected that HBCUs were targeted because of their success in recent years.

“They don’t want to see Nike partnering with FAMU, they don’t want to see AT&T partner with North Carolina A&T, and they don’t want to see other HBCUs flourish with support and partnerships,” Vilfrard said. “They don’t want to see the endowments grow.” 

News of the bomb threats immediately brought a response from FAMU President Larry Robinson.

“We are monitoring and in constant contact with other HBCUs and universities about the bomb threats throughout the country to gauge best practices and lessons learned,” Robinson said. “We will follow our policies and procedures in regards to bomb threats and enact our Memorandums of Understanding with other agencies to help ensure our students, faculty, staff and visitors are and remain safe.”

 Zachary Bell, president of FAMU student government senate, said he was astonished by the threats and the timing.

“For us to be still receiving racially motivated threats in 2022 is really disheartening,” Bell said. “Our universities are supposed to be a safe haven for Black higher learning and students shouldn’t have to worry about threats of bombings or shootings, especially racially motivated. This is supposed to be a time of celebration where we are celebrating our HBCUs.

“We have to stand in solidarity even though we are individual institutions. We are still collectively schools that were made for us.”

The threats made him feel he “was living in those times that I heard my grandparents speak about,” Bell said.

That sentiment about not going back to the years that Blacks lived in fear was expressed at a press conference called by faith and community leaders in Jacksonville to address bomb threats. Rev. RB Holmes, pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church and president of the Tallahassee Chapter of the National Action Network, defied the idea that threats could seriously impact Blacks.

However, Holmes, who serves on the Board of Trustees at Edward Waters University, and had done similarly at FAMU and Florida Memorial University, condemned the intent of the perpetrators.

“We worked too hard to strengthen and sustain HBCUs in the spirit of our ancestors,” Holmes said in a statement prior to the press conference. “We ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.”

North Florida Congressional Representative Al Lawson, who has strong ties to Jacksonville, said he was in touch with Edward Waters’ President Zachary Faison Jr. after the threat.

“It is reprehensible and unbelievable that at the beginning of Black History Month there is an orchestrated effort to harm students at our beloved educational institutions,” Lawson said in a statement. “HBCUs were created to provide a higher education to Black Americans during a time when other institutions barred their doors. 

“We must protect HBCUs and the advancement they continue to afford us. I strongly condemn these hateful threats being made. Our community is upset, and we are ready to bring the conspirators to justice.”

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