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After ‘Empire’ actor’s alleged assault, his upset fans are coming to the aid of NC college

Empire star Jussie Smollett says he was attacked by men who used racial and homophobic slurs

Chicago Police are searching for assailants who attacked "Empire" star Jussie Smollett early Tuesday morning and say they are investigating as a "possible hate crime."
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Chicago Police are searching for assailants who attacked "Empire" star Jussie Smollett early Tuesday morning and say they are investigating as a "possible hate crime."

The campaign to save North Carolina’s Bennett College has drawn some high-profile supporters, including Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” actor who this week reported he was attacked in Chicago by two masked men who uttered racial and homophobic slurs.

Now supporters of Smollett are giving to Bennett in his honor, according to social media posts under the school’s campaign slogan, #StandWithBennett.

One Twitter user identified only as @RamblinRobin tweeted a receipt of a gift to Bennett, adding, “Because of the evil wrought upon you last night, I came to your Twitter, saw your re-tweet of @donnabrazile, researched @BennettCollege, and just finished my donation. Good acts will beat evil ones.”

The historically black college in Greensboro — one of only two all-women HBCUs in the nation — has until Feb. 1 to raise a total of $5 million in an effort to try to hold onto its accreditation. In December, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges notified Bennett that its accreditation was revoked because of a lack of financial resources. The college had been on probation for the previous two years, and a loss of accreditation could lead to Bennett’s closure.

In recent weeks, Jussie Smollett, his brother Jake Smollett and sister Jazz Smollett joined in the campaign to help raise awareness of the school’s plight. They wore navy blue “Stand with Bennett” T-shirts in photos posted to Twitter. Jussie and Jazz Smollett appeared with Bennett College President Phyllis Dawkins in an interview with the Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC earlier this week.

“We can raise this amount. I’m fired up, ready to go,” Smollett said on MSNBC, adding, “I think that we have a very real opportunity right now to continue to uplift the education of women, and black women specifically.”

The program was broadcast two days before a bizarre alleged assault on the TV star and singer, in which Smollett said assailants hit him, poured a chemical substance on him and put a rope around his neck. Chicago police said they were investigating it as a possible hate crime.

Smollett, who is black and openly gay, plays a gay character on the popular Fox drama about an African-American family in the recording industry.

On Wednesday night, a Chicago police spokesman tweeted a new development in the case, saying detectives located a surveillance camera “that shows potential persons of interest wanted for questioning” in the assault.

The incident prompted outrage and support for Smollett across social media, and in turn, some of his fans are showing their affection for him by donating to Bennett.

One alumna, identified as Azuree Bateman, tweeted: “You #StandwithBennett and now we stand with you! My heart literally hurts right now. Nobody deserves this. Prayers up for a peace of mind and the strength to continue on in this crazy world.”

In an interview Wednesday, Dawkins said the college had reached out to Smollett’s family to offer well wishes for a quick recovery.

The college had raised $3.2 million as of Wednesday, including $500,000 from Papa John’s Foundation and $500,000 from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Dawkins said.

Individual churches were dropping off checks of as much as $50,000, and Alpha Kappa Alpha, an African American sorority, sent $100,000. Wells Fargo Bank donated $50,000. Other historically black colleges had challenged students to give $1, and Guilford County schools’ teachers collected more than $8,000.

The college’s staff will be working through the weekend to tally contributions and prepare an appeal to the accrediting body that will be sent in the next few days, Dawkins said.

“We do want to be able to count every dollar that comes in,” she said.

Bennett has seen a 16 percent enrollment growth this year, and actually had a budget surplus last year, Dawkins said. But the college has struggled financially for years.

The college should know in February whether its appeal is successful. If not, Bennett could file a lawsuit and seek accreditation through another organization for Christian schools. Then, Dawkins said, the college will “re-engineer” itself to survive in the future.

Meanwhile, recruiting for next year’s class continues. Dawkins said 4,000 students had applied for admission and 2,000 have been accepted.

“At Bennett College, we just provide a good experience for our students,” Dawkins said.

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Jane Stancill has reported on higher ed for The News & Observer for 20 years. She has won state and national awards for her coverage of education.


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