Donta Betts could’ve been one of Baltimore’s most acclaimed native sons, chiseling for himself a career in politics, criminal justice, the arts or sciences with a degree earned at Coppin State University – as so many before him did, even out of the signature overcast of Baltimore’s poverty and hopelessness.
Even if the Donta Betts we know today were standing on another block, or happened to be around a group of friends who were a little less enraged and a little more conscious of the cameras all around them, filming and snapshotting the emotional tidal wave attempting to crest over the city’s invisible barrier reef of injustice, maybe we wouldn’t recognize him as the very face of last April’s riots.
But Betts, not instantly, but over the slow burn of his life, became the living embodiment of rage set ablaze by generational defeats on the wars of us vs. them, poor vs. rich, white vs. black, emancipated vs. enslaved.
Now we know him as the guy with the lighter fluid. The guy who burned down the CVS. The guy sentenced to 15 years in federal prison last week without parole.
Thomas ‘Hollywood’ Henderson is a former staff member in Coppin’s athletic department who is one of the nation’s top athletes over the age of 55. He represents Baltimore City, the home of his youth, and Coppin State, a home after ending his career in the United States Army, in competitions throughout the country as a multi-talented track and field athlete.
Henderson is not a graduate of Coppin, but represents the best of what the university has to offer – opportunity for community-based talent to be great at any age.
Betts and Henderson’s stories are contrasting footnotes in the narrative of Coppin as an anchor institution in Baltimore’s western district. Blocks away from the intersection where the world watched black boys and girls clash with police in full riot gear last year, Coppin finds itself in a fight similar to the ones taken up by Baltimore’s youth against injustice, but without the cameras or the police violence against an innocent man.
The fight is for Coppin’s future, and the contrast is its undeniable growth in stature and optimism, while tethered to a past filled with uneven leadership and pushing towards an uncertain future.
Bright university signage quickly draws your eyes away from blue-light cameras atop light posts. People walk on sidewalks and across streets once deemed trouble spots in freshmen orientation and among faculty and students. In its immediate radius, Coppin appears to be creating a recognizable campus community.
But for all the resources given to Coppin State, economic development immediately surrounding Coppin hasn’t just stalled, but may be going in reverse. The Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, just one mile from CSU’s main campus on the community in which Freddie Gray grew up, is one of the worst areas in the country for homicide, premature births, childhood lead poisoning, unemployment, poor secondary education and poverty.
There’s a reason that city business and arts cultures seem to wither as they get closer to historically black colleges. HBCUs like Texas Southern University, Johnson C. Smith University and Tennessee State University have long worked to crack the code on how to invigorate communities beyond the campus borders, with mixed success and varied impact on presidential longevity when confronted with issues like crime and campus expansion.
Coppin finds itself in rare air, while the community continues to choke on the toxic mix of politics and poverty. In so many ways, the blend is a natural repellant to the university’s prospects of attracting high-caliber faculty, high-achieving students and philanthropy.
But when you ask CSU alumni and state officials, the university is growing beyond what anyone could ever imagine.
Coppin’s promising president, Maria Thompson, will end her first year on July 1, to well-deserved fanfare over her meticulous eye for data, deliverables and viral exposure for the institution.
But the state of Maryland threatens Coppin’s ideal expansion with pseudo-mergers between the its flagship campus and a city-based offshoot, which promises to cut into Coppin’s appeal to working professionals and graduate students who live or want to live in Charm City.
It is the most heinous kind of strategy used to give a distorted view of public HBCU progress – make black colleges rich in construction and renovation, but drain them of the human capital and unique programs which can make the campus a top choice to students along a broad range of potential and credentials, and to corporations looking to recruit them for entry into the workforce.
Coppin’s athletic facilities and history of success make it a premier target for recruits in a basketball hotbed, and CSU remains on a pace to lead HBCUs in best practices for how to retain and graduate student athletes, thanks to the work of former Assistant AD Fred Reynolds.
But without investment from the community and corporate partners in the city, chances are slim that the university will duplicate its magic run from the 1997 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, or capitalize on a basketball-hungry city waiting for a local mid-major to break through to national prominence.
Coppin State has so much potential in the civic pride, industrial development and urban renewal it can bring to Baltimore. For the first time in years, it seems to have a president who can deftly manage the politically-pressurized culture of the University System of Maryland and its anti-HBCU agenda, while working within current means to improve outcomes for students and the community.
But it takes investment from the state, and pressure from citizens to force the issue on Coppin’s potential. The campus should be more than just new buildings and talking points on possibility – it should be the heartbeat of West Baltimore’s economic and social revival.
Donta Betts and Thomas Henderson are both the indirect byproducts of an underdeveloped Coppin State. But without investment and attention, whose story are we most likely to hear more of, and how much will it cost our community along the way?