The proposed rezoning of the Shaw University campus raises a critical question that has not been addressed by the applicants, the Shaw board of trustees.

The question is: What is Shaw’s plan for the future that will honor its history as the South’s oldest HBCU (Historically Black College or University) while facilitating its growth as a locus of African-American aspiration?

The answer given by Shaw’s president Paulette Dillard is vague and unsatisfying, amounting to little more than a hope that, following a rezoning, investor-developers will appear and “partner” with Shaw on, well, some scheme or other.

If there’s a master plan for the campus, it’s been kept under wraps. If there’s a vision, it hasn’t been shared.

Meanwhile, does the City of Raleigh have a stake in the outcome?

Proponents of the rezoning say no, we don’t. All of the rest of downtown has been up-zoned, they insist, and Shaw should not be treated differently than, say, a downtown furniture store.

But Shaw is not a furniture store, it is an institution with a legacy that, once gone, cannot be replaced. It is the legacy of freed slaves who founded a university for the purpose of learning and leading. It’s a living lesson for everyone who comes to the city. It’s the beating heart of Raleigh’s black history.

Another thing: The Shaw trustees, unlike the owners of a store, are not Shaw’s owners. Rather, they hold the campus in trust, as stewards of all that Shaw has been and will be. They’re supposed to be leaders with a dream, not real estate speculators looking to cash in.

The City, too, and all of us who live here, must also hold Shaw in trust, taking care to preserve and enhance this most cherished place of African-American striving and accomplishment.

Let’s face it, Raleigh’s record is dismal when it comes to respecting our African-American history and the African-American neighborhoods that were created, as Shaw was, as a consequence of Emancipation.

Years of Jim Crow segregation and neglect have given way to a new era of gentrification.

Unimpeded, it will soon sweep away any sense that freed African-Americans were here, emerged from slavery here, lifted themselves up by their bootstraps here, created communities here, and mattered greatly to the Raleigh we became and the Raleigh we hope to be.

Unimpeded, it’s entirely possible that Shaw will be swept away too, or moved to a distant place not central to the city to make room for “higher value” development.

As the old saying goes, when it comes to what we prize, Raleigh knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

If Shaw is removed, there will no doubt be a marker to tell us that a great African-American  university once existed at the center of life in “old” Raleigh, but it had no place in our “new” Raleigh.

Shaw is not prospering, that’s clear. It is losing students, losing faculty, losing its identity. It needs a plan, but most of all it needs leaders who know what it’s worth, not just as real estate to be exploited, but as a place of learning for diverse student bodies in a city that values their minds.

Instead of Raleigh rezoning Shaw out of its campus, perhaps the city could be a constructive “partner” for Shaw, helping it chart a course to success. We could embrace it, and invest in it with new facilities (a downtown library? a center for African-American history?), thereby adding to a campus that is integral to what Raleigh is.

Surely, in America’s fastest growing city, we can help Shaw to be fast-growing as well, and keep the bulldozers at bay.

Read our follow-up story here:  Shaw rezoning, use your Head and your Heart  

Livable Raleigh Editorial Team

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