Caitlin Dickerson and Stephanie Sauldec, New York Times, December 2, 2017
The fliers appeared suddenly on a crisp morning in early November. They were scattered among golden leaves on the grounds of Spelman and Morehouse, the side-by-side women’s and men’s colleges that are two of the country’s most celebrated historically black schools.
“Morehouse Protects Rapists,” some of them read. “Spelman Protects Rapists.”
Some of the documents accused prominent athletes and fraternity members by name. Though workers quickly made the fliers disappear, students were already passing photos from cellphone to cellphone. Before long, the names were on Twitter.
And the next morning, students at Morehouse woke up to another unnerving sight: graffiti marring the chapel, a spiritual gathering place dedicated to a revered alumnus, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scrawled in red spray paint, the message read: “Practice What You Preach Morehouse + End Rape Culture.”
Neither Spelman nor Morehouse would disclose how many complaints it has received, and in interviews, Spelman students and professors said they did not believe sexual assault was any more common there than elsewhere.
But most said they believed the colleges had not been taking the issue seriously enough. Now their pent-up frustration has burst into the open during a national moment of reckoning.
The issue was particularly painful for Spelman students, who spoke of a shared legacy with Morehouse that gave them great pride and, they said, could be perversely discouraging victims from coming forward or assailants from being punished.
The institutions were founded more than 130 years ago, when black students were all but banned from most American colleges. Their students have included some of the most prominent figures in African-American history, including King; the novelist Alice Walker; Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund; and the filmmaker Spike Lee.
Spelman and Morehouse students also have deep emotional connections. A Spelman freshman often pairs up with a Morehouse freshman as “sister” and “brother” who are encouraged to support each other during their college careers. Many Spelman women have traditionally aspired to marry Morehouse men, and vice versa, matches that are regularly celebrated on Facebook, producing “SpelHouse” babies.
The students are also steeped in African-American history, and many Spelman women said they felt a responsibility to protect black men from negative stereotypes.
Another senior, Evalyne Neely-Savitt, said that when she arrived for her freshman year, she was hoping to become part of another mythic Spelman-Morehouse power couple.
Instead of her idealized vision, one of her first encounters with Morehouse men was at a fraternity party where one threw her over his shoulder, placed his head between her legs and simulated oral sex while squeezing her thighs and bottom.
The crowd cheered and afterward, people around her congratulated her for capturing the student’s attention. So she felt she would not be supported for speaking out against what she considered an assault.
Students also described practical barriers to adjudicating sexual assault. The porous boundaries that allow students to mill back and forth between the two campuses to study and socialize are not mirrored in the way that the schools are governed. Numerous Spelman women said that because complaints against Morehouse men were investigated by Morehouse, they did not expect fair treatment.
In an email, a Spelman spokeswoman, Joyce E. Davis, said the college had expanded its Title IX office in the last two years and reached out to women to encourage them to report complaints. “Spelman takes every reported incident extremely seriously,” she said.
At Morehouse, reaction to the campaign was mixed. Isaiah Smalls, the editor of The Maroon Tiger, the campus newspaper, said he planned an entire issue on sexual assault. “I believe that as a campus, we’re not as educated as we should be,” he said.
But an angry backlash emerged from some on the campus, who called the public accusations reckless and said that at least some were untrue.