“I Suppressed So Much of My Humanity in Being Here”

What it’s like to be black at Liberty University.

A black man, seen from behind, holds his hand to his head as he looks at campus.
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photos by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AFP via Getty Images and AaronAmat/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

LeeQuan McLaurin thought it would be “the simplest of actions” for his department at Liberty University, the Office of Equity and Inclusion, to post something on social media in response to the ongoing nationwide protests against police brutality. But in this case, Liberty’s director of diversity retention says he encountered nothing but delays and confusion from colleagues when he tried to get approval for a post. According to McLaurin, his boss—the office’s director, Greg Dowell, who is also black—said a post was unnecessary. Then the topic came up at a larger meeting, still with no action. On June 1, McLaurin finally went ahead and posted something himself to the office’s account: a simple image reading “BLACK LIVES MATTER” and a caption citing six Bible verses backing up the slogan. Within an hour, McLaurin said, an administrator had removed the post. (McLaurin shared a screengrab of the post with Slate, but the administrator did not respond to a request for comment.)

McLaurin, who had worked at Liberty since he graduated from the school in 2015, resigned in early June, an act he described as the culmination of accumulated years of frustration at a school he loved. For him, the current moment is a time for both optimism and regret. He recalled feeling sick sitting as a chaperone to a mostly white student group at a “Blexit” event that black conservative activist Candace Owens held in Richmond, Virginia, last year—a rally intended to convince black voters to leave the Democratic Party. Liberty had offered the outing as a “cultural excursion.” McLaurin said that someone outside his department sent out an all-campus email about it from McLaurin’s Liberty email account without his permission. Backstage after the event, watching Owens surrounded by adoring white people, “it felt like I was in a horror movie.” “I cannot encourage students of color to go to that university the way that it is,” McLaurin said. “Our students deserve better. Our faculty deserve better. Our staff deserves better.” (A Liberty spokesman declined my request for interviews with Dowell and Jerry Falwell Jr. and did not respond to a detailed list of questions.)

LeeQuan McLaurin smiles in a suit and tie in front of a tree.
LeeQuan McLaurin, former director of diversity retention at Liberty University. Courtesy of LeeQuan McLaurin

McLaurin’s resignation came just days after Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. ignited widespread outrage by tweeting an image of a face mask decorated with the infamous racist photo from the 1984 medical school yearbook of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. (The photo depicts one white student in blackface and another in a KKK robe at a costume party; Northam initially confessed he was one of the men in the photo, and later recanted.) Falwell Jr. has clashed frequently with Northam, a Democrat, over issues including a recent statewide mask mandate. “If I am ordered to wear a mask, I will reluctantly comply, only if this picture of Governor Blackface himself is on it!” Falwell Jr. wrote in his tweet.

Falwell Jr. deleted the post two weeks later and tweeted an apology for “any hurt my effort caused,” acknowledging that reproducing the racist image “refreshed the trauma that image had caused and offended some by using the image to make a political point.” In a video posted to Facebook by independent journalist Andre Whitehead, Falwell Jr. said he decided to apologize after meeting with black associates including Allen McFarland, a member of the board of directors, and former NFL running back Rashad Jennings, a Liberty alumnus who delivered the school’s commencement address in 2016. An alternately jokey and defiant Falwell Jr. also said Dowell will report to him directly from now on, and that students will receive Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday for the first time in the school’s history. (Falwell’s father preached against integration and lambasted King as a Communist in the 1960s, though he later expressed regret over his anti-integration stances.)

But Falwell Jr.’s apology has not quieted the growing chorus of black employees and alumni calling for deeper changes at one of the country’s largest evangelical colleges. Thomas Starchia, who was an associate director in the Office of Spiritual Development, announced his resignation “with a heavy, frustrated, yet peaceful heart” on June 5. Starchia’s responsibilities included greeting guests at the Montview Mansion, a guesthouse on campus. He said he had an “internal crisis” after Falwell Jr.’s mask tweet that came to a head when he was instructed to meet Falwell Jr. himself along with some visitors at the mansion. “I couldn’t go to the house,” he told me by email. “It was at that moment that I went to my office, and realized that it was time for me to step down.” Starchia graduated from Liberty in 2010 and had worked there full time since 2012.

In Starchia’s resignation letter, which he quoted to Slate, he wrote, “I cannot submit myself under [Falwell Jr.’s] leadership at this current time as a black employee of the university.” In response, he said, Falwell Jr. and multiple upper-level administrators called him directly to ask him to reconsider; Falwell Jr. “encouraged and pushed” him, in Starchia’s words, to read Falwell Jr.’s apology tweets. Starchia said he would think it over but ultimately decided he had to leave. “I suppressed so much of my humanity as a black and queer man in being here,” he wrote to me. He remembered being called an “Oreo” to his face, being introduced as “the black friend,” and being asked during Black History Month why there’s no White History Month. “I want to be hopeful, but until the university recognizes their past history with racism, apologizes for it, and enacts significant policy implementation from the board level,” he wrote to me, “I do not foresee any changes for students or staff.”

At least two other black employees at Liberty have resigned publicly since Falwell Jr. tweeted the racist image. Keyvon Scott, an online admissions counselor, resigned June 8. “I cannot in good faith encourage people to attend a school with racially insensitive leadership and culture,” he tweeted. “It is a poor reflection of what Jesus Christ requires of us.” Christopher House, an online instructor teaching a course on intercultural communications, resigned from Liberty the day after Falwell Jr.’s tweet. A friend who is a Liberty graduate sent him the tweet in a text message, he said, and he decided immediately to leave his part-time teaching job at the school. “In that moment it was as if my ancestors rose up within me and I knew I need to resign,” he told me. “It was an automatic deal breaker.” House said he has not received any communication from anyone at the school since he stepped down. In the video posted by Whitehead, Falwell responded dismissively to a question about House, at first saying he had not heard about the resignation and then correctly noting that House “teaches two courses.”

There are indications that the turmoil may affect Liberty’s ability to recruit and retain minority students, too. Star basketball player Asia Todd, a sophomore, announced on Thursday that she is planning to transfer out of the school. “Due to the racial insensitivities shown within the leadership and culture, it simply does not align with my moral compass or personal convictions,” she said in a video posted to Twitter. “Therefore, I had to do what I felt was best within my heart and stand up for what is right.” A source with connections to the Liberty athletic community told me that several high school football players in Georgia declined scholarships to Liberty in early June because of Falwell’s racial insensitivity.

A current employee on campus, who is black and spoke on condition of anonymity, described her experience as an undergraduate at the school as “isolating.” She lived in an apartment-style campus housing unit that was relatively expensive compared with other Liberty housing, and she frequently felt like white students were suspicious of her presence there. She interviewed for multiple student leadership positions—the interviewers were all white, she says—and never received a call back. As an employee, she has become similarly aware of the whiteness of the school’s leadership ranks. “The power structure on campus is definitely not built in favor of minorities, so it’s hard for us to speak out,” she said. “Most of us are in lower-level positions, and we can’t afford to risk our jobs.”

Brown-skinned people abound in Liberty’s marketing materials, the employee noted. But the student body, not to mention the population of professors and senior leadership, is overwhelmingly white. Of the 29 people listed on Liberty’s website as executive or senior leaders, only Dowell is black. McLaurin said the school’s internal count recorded a drop in the black residential student population from 10 percent in 2007 to just 4 percent in 2018. Falwell Jr. prefers to emphasize the demographics of the school’s larger online program, where 27 percent of students are black.

There have been other signs of outspoken dissent in recent weeks. A group of 35 black alumni, including pastors and former student athletes, issued an open letter on June 1 calling for Falwell Jr. to resign. Annette Madlock Gatison, a professor of strategic and personal communication, who is black, wrote a public blog post the next day lamenting what she described as Liberty “condoning racism, fear, and hate-mongering coming with biblical justification”:

It was naive of me to think that my presence in an institution that historically contested my mere existence would ever change. Why did I take this job in the first place? Listening for and answering to a God of liberation and social justice sent me on a mission in a war zone. How can I continue to work at such an institution where the leader thinks it is OK to promote racism, hate, and fear? How can I continue to lend my expertise, credibility, and professional reputation to a university that will never see me—I am invisible, I am a commodity, I am expendable.

For some black alumni, the events of the past few weeks have prompted them to reflect on their experiences on campus. Joshua McMillion, who graduated in 2018 and went on to work for the school until this spring, said he was struck by Liberty’s silence during the early waves of the Black Lives Matter movement. “The leaders were either completely silent or would bring in speakers to gaslight students,” he said. He recalled feeling that the school used speakers like Ben Carson to make it look like it was addressing issues important to black students. But when a predominantly black ministry McMillion belonged to wanted to host a panel discussion on Black Lives Matter, an administrator refused to allow the event to take place on campus. They held the event at a local anti-poverty nonprofit instead.

Open racial dissent—or dissent of any kind—has been rare over the course of Liberty’s 49-year history. In the fall of 2018, some students protested what they described as a racist school culture, after twin students dressed up for Halloween as a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer and a man in a sombrero. Another group demonstrated when Owens came to speak. But those protests attracted just a few dozen students on a campus of 15,000.

To McLaurin, something seems to be different this time. For a long time as a Liberty employee, he didn’t feel he would be heard if he said what he really thought. “It’s hard to know what I know and not speak up,” he said. “My hope is I’ll get so much out there that they’ll have no choice but to change.”