The History of Historically Black Colleges

| TBS Staff

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Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are crucial to advancing educational and job opportunities for black Americans.

When Richard Humphreys arrived in Philadelphia from the British Virgin Islands in 1764, he was still in his teens. But even then, the young Quaker was disturbed by the conditions facing African Americans in his new city. Like most adherents to Quaker principles, Humphrey was vocal in his opposition to slavery and donated freely to abolitionist causes. He was increasingly convinced that education was at least one key to improving lives for black Americans.

Then, in 1829, Humphreys read of race riots consuming Cincinnati, Ohio. At 79 years of age, Humphreys altered the details of his will, adding a bequeathment for the establishment of a school “to instruct the descendants of the African Race in school learning, in the various branches of the mechanic Arts, trades and Agriculture, in order to prepare and fit and qualify them to act as teachers ...”

Humphreys passed away just three years later, but his philanthropic legacy would be enormous. In 1837, one tenth of his estate, totaling $10,000, was dedicated to the founding of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. It was the very first institution of higher learning accessible to African Americans.

In 1904, the school was relocated to a farm owned by a man named George Cheney, some 40 miles outside of Philadelphia. Within a decade, the institution had taken the name Cheney University and begun granting degrees. Today, Cheney stands as the oldest African American institute of higher learning still in operation. More importantly, it was the first in a long and proud line of institutions recognizing the connection between education and racial equality.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in operation today across 19 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 51 of these institutions are public and 49 are private. Just as Richard Humphreys envisioned as he made those last-minute edits to his will, these institutions of higher learning have played a critical role in helping African Americans dismantle the obstacles for freedom, equality, social mobility, and collective advancement.

In honor of Black History Month, we take a look at the evolution, impact, and present day role of HBCUs.

History of HBCUs

According to the U.S. Department of Education,“HBCUs are a source of accomplishment and great pride for the African American community as well as the entire nation. The Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, defines an HBCU as: ‘…any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary [of Education] to be a reliable authority as to the quality of training offered or is, according to such an agency or association, making reasonable progress toward accreditation.' HBCUs offer all students, regardless of race, an opportunity to develop their skills and talents. These institutions train young people who go on to serve domestically and internationally in the professions as entrepreneurs and in the public and private sectors.”

Just as Richard Humphreys envisioned as he made those last-minute edits to his will, these institutions of higher learning have played a critical role in helping African Americans dismantle the obstacles for freedom.

There are a number of colleges and universities which—while rostering student bodies comprised predominantly by people of color—were founded after 1964 and therefore are not considered "Historically" black colleges.

Though HBCUs are open to students of all races, the need for an HBCU designation can be traced to the long stretch of American history in which black students were largely denied access to mainstream colleges and universities. HBCUs arose by necessity and were, for many years and in many regional contexts, the only avenue that black Americans had to receive a higher education or attain undergraduate and graduate degrees. In this way, HBCUs are at once symbolic of the slavery and segregation eras, and have been an important part of counteracting their lasting effects.

Antebellum HBCUs

Though the vast majority of schools receiving the HBCU designation were forged in the flames of postwar America, the mold was set in the tense years leading up to the Civil War. As we noted, Cheyney University gets credit for being the first institution of higher learning to serve the declared interest of advancing opportunities for black Americans. However, it would not have the power to grant accredited degrees until the start of the 20th Century.

Therefore, Lincoln University, also located in Pennsylvania, owns the distinction of being the first HBCU to issue degrees to its graduates. Lincoln was founded near the town of Oxford, PA in 1854 as Ashmun Institute. It took its current name a decade later to honor America's recently-assassinated president. Because it was the only institution in the United States granting degrees to black graduates, Lincoln attracted excellence from throughout the United States. In particular, during decades of segregation, many of the best and brightest young minds in the South fled Jim Crow laws and found opportunity at Lincoln. Remarkably, in fact, from 1854 to 1954, 20 percent of all black physicians and 10% of all black attorneys in the U.S. had earned their degrees at Lincoln.

During decades of segregation, many of the best and brightest young minds in the South fled Jim Crow laws and found opportunity at Lincoln.

Among the universities best known graduates are late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former president of Nigeria, Benjamin Asikiwe, and legendary poet, Langston Hughes. In 1972, Lincoln became affiliated directly with the state of Pennsylvania and thus transformed into a public institution.

As such, the oldest surviving private HBCU is Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio. Founded in 1856, Wilberforce also stands apart as the very first institution of higher learning in America to be owned and operated by African Americans. The school's founding was the result of a collaboration between the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) with the mission of providing classical education and teacher training for young black students. Its original board was comprised of both black and white members. Many of the first students to attend Wilberforce journeyed there from the South.

A Nation At War

Wilberforce is also a prime example of the hardship that HBCUs often faced and the resilience needed for survival. With the outbreak of violence and the intensification of the Civil War, the college faced financial difficulty, closing its doors in 1862. The following year, Bishop Daniel Payne led the AME to purchase the university, repair its debt, and reopen its doors. Bishop Payne thus became the first African American college president in the United States. (Actually, we were so impressed by his story that we included him in our Campus Legends series.)

In the same year that Wilberforce suffered its arson attack, the very first HBCU opened its doors in the Southern states.

Payne's tenure was marked by the same tumult that gripped a nation divided by war. In 1865, an act of arson reduced Wilberforce to ashes. However, an array of prominent Americans, alongside a supportive Congress, stepped forward to fund the school's rebuilding. Over the coming decades, Wilberforce became a center of black academic and intellectual life in Ohio and its surrounding states, attracting prominent scholars to its faculty, the esteemed W.E.B. Du Bois most notable among them.

In the same year that Wilberforce suffered its arson attack, the very first HBCU opened its doors in the Southern states. Shaw University (founded as Raleigh Institute in 1865) is the oldest remaining HBCU below the Mason-Dixon Line. In many ways, the founding of Shaw University would be a catalyzing event for the proliferation of higher education opportunities for Southern Black Americans.

In fact, Shaw is sometimes referred to as the mother of African American colleges in the state of North Carolina. This is because alumni from the Releigh Institution would go on to found and preside over North Carolina Central University, Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, and Livingstone College. Clearly, Shaw's students came to believe in the power of educational opportunities to advance the fortunes of Black Americans.

Shaw was the first to open its doors but a wave of new schools soon emerged in the postwar South with the mission of providing opportunities for freed slaves. Many of the most highly regarded HBCUs opened their doors in 1867 and 1868, including leading institutions like Howard University, Hampton University, and Morehouse College.

Jim Crow and the College Campus

The end of Civil War hostilities marked the first true wave of HBCU openings. However, this wave also came at a time when Southern States were rapidly advancing segregationist agendas. Even as the now slave-less Confederate states returned reluctantly to the Union, they reacted to their new situation by introducing Jim Crow laws. These laws were aimed explicitly at keeping recently freed black southerners segregated from white southerners and their institutions, including places of employment, eating establishments, public bathrooms, drinking fountains, lodging, healthcare facilities and places of higher learning.

HBCUs emerged as the only outlet for higher education and the acquisition of degrees among black southerners.

Of the many severe inequalities foisted upon them, black students were prevented from attending any of the Southern institutions founded in the wake of the 1862 Morrill Act providing for land grant colleges in every state. To combat this aspect of segregation, Congress passed the Second Morrill Act of 1890 (also known as the Agricultural College Act of 1890), requiring states to establish land grant colleges for Black Americans in contexts where such students were otherwise excluded from existing land grant colleges.

This gesture demonstrates a core irony of HBCUs, which persists to this day. Namely, such schools were established to combat the effects of segregation. But of course, in the form described here above, they also helped to institutionalize educational segregation in ways we are still grappling with today. Nonetheless, this 1890 legislation would set off another wave of HBCU openings, ultimately creating a whole new set of opportunities for Black Americans seeking education and professional degrees.

For the ensuing decades, as segregation laws became entrenched in the Southern states, HBCUs emerged as the only outlet for higher education and the acquisition of degrees among black southerners. The most prominent among these schools admitted students of all races, which meant that in addition to serving as educational and intellectual sanctuaries for black life in America, HBCUs provided a rarified context in which black and white southerners could collaborate, share ideas, and even foment the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.

The March to Freedom

Indeed, HBCUs naturally became a center for political mobilization and civic activism. During the decades of Jim Crow, HBCUs provided an atmosphere in which black southerners were safe to discuss their collective plight openly, to forge solutions, and to mass their efforts into a meaningful path forward. It was thus that they attracted some of the boldest and most ambitious future Civil Rights leaders to their rosters. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, for instance, earned admission to Morehouse College by passing an admissions exam while still in his junior year of high school. He graduated in 1948 before moving on to the integrated Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.

The Supreme Court found that there were substantive differences in the quality of education available to white students and black students.

In the ensuing years, a number of landmark court decisions would have a direct impact on the orientation of, and activism within, America's HBCUs. Particularly, in 1950, Sweatt vs. Painter became the first Supreme Court case to successfully challenge the notion of “separate but equal,” which had upheld the legality of segregation since the 1896 case, Plessy v. Ferguson. In the 1950 case, a black man named Heman Marion Sweatt challenged the Texas state constitution, which denied him access to the University of Texas School of Law on the basis of his race. The Supreme Court found that there were substantive differences in the quality of education available to white students and black students.

This would set the stage for the 1954 decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education, in which it was resolved that “separate is inherently unequal.” The decision would be a critical turning point in American history, marking the true beginning of the Civil Rights era. Led by the example that Rosa Parks, Dr. King and others were now setting with the Montgomery bus boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, students at America's HBCUs began to organize and engage.

By the late 1950s, HBCUs became a critical part of the movement toward total desegregation in the south. In 1959, two students from Florida A&M University—Patricia and Priscilla Stevens— organized a bus boycott in Tallahassee that effectively led to bus integration in a matter of weeks. Forming a chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) on their campus, they launched a lunch counter sit-in campaign that ultimately led to fuller integration in Tallahassee. It was among the first major campus sit-in campaigns and a model for the surge of activities that followed thereafter.

In 1960, four students from the North Carolina Agriculture and Technical College staged a sit-in at a nearby Woolworths store. The peaceful demonstration against segregation in southern retail and eating establishments had a ripple effect. Within days, four Nashville HBCUs had joined the protest. Students from Tennessee State, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, and Baptist Seminary were staging their own sit-ins.

1960 also saw the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Shaw University. Originally formed as a way to help students organize sit-in movements across the south, the SNCC would ultimately come to play a major role in the broader Civil Rights Movement, joining Dr. King, future U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), CORE, and other movement leaders for the epochal 1963 March on Washington.

The SNCC's members also engaged in voter registration drives aimed at empowering southern black voters. These efforts were essential in bringing about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which struck down as illegal any measures aimed at discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Naturally, this event was not a magic potion that suddenly cured the south of racial inequity. This was merely the beginning of a sweeping set of federal reforms designed to dismantle Jim Crow. During this era, HBCUs became an increasingly important outlet for black students to make their demands. For instance, unfair restrictions on the SNCC's black voter registration drive helped to motivate the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in 1965. The violent clashes that pitted police officers against peaceful protesters cast a glaring light on the struggle of southern blacks, ultimately leading President Johnson to dispatch the Alabama National Guard, FBI and Federal Marshals to provide protection for the marchers as they stormed the Alabama state capital and demanded equal voting rights.

These events would precipitate the passage of the Voting Rights Act later in the same year. Organization at the campus level would be absolutely critical to this achievement. 1965 would see another piece of legislation of tremendous relevance to the experience of black students. The Higher Education Act of 1965 would increase the amount of federal resources dedicated to colleges and universities while enhancing student access to financial assistance.

In addition, it would create a new designation to describe schools previously reserved for black students during the era of segregation. As a means of denoting an end to segregation and a new era in the lifespan of such schools, the federal government created the Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) category.

Over the next decade, HBCUs would continue to serve as hotbeds for political action as students demanded, beyond just desegregation, real and growing equality. A series of sit-ins at administrative offices between 1967 and 1968—most notably Cheyney University, Howard University, Bowie State, and Tuskegee University—called attention to the unequal resources and less relevant curriculum accessible to students at HBCUs. These protests helped the newly-designated schools modernize their approach to education in the post-Jim Crow era, many moving toward a more Afrocentric socio-cultural perspective (as opposed to the dominant Eurocentric view in American education).

The HBCU Era

The advancement of Civil Rights opened the doors of white colleges to black students throughout the United States. The result was a drop in enrollment at HBCUs and a general shifting of the educational landscape. In response, HBCUs would court increasingly diverse student bodies. To the point, a study by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education reports that while black students comprised nearly 100% of America's HBCU student body in 1950, the number was closer to 80% by 1980. In the last 30 years, an infusion of Latino and Asian students, as well as a steady enrollment of roughly 10-13% white students, has helped to create a distinctly multicultural experience on many HBCU campuses.

Indeed, HBCUs still play an outsize role in helping to advance black students in their educational and professional goals.

1980 also marked an important step forward as President Carter signed an executive order calling for the distribution of greater federal funds to HBCUs. This created the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (WHIHBCU), an entity that operates in support of HBCUs through the U.S. Department of Education.

Beyond their cultural features, HBCUs have played a critical role in the economic and professional ascendancy of black Americans, often creating opportunities that still remain otherwise obstructed by institutional racism. This may explain why, as of 2011, HBCUs enrolled 11% of black students in the U.S. while representing less than 3% of colleges or universities in the nation. Indeed, HBCUs still play an outsize role in helping to advance black students in their educational and professional goals.

For instance, though Xavier University only enrolls 3,000 students annually, it leads the nation in black graduates who eventually complete medical school. The school credits an atmosphere free from institutional inequality, culturally-biased curriculum, and racial hostility for the success of its students.

Spelman College, which holds the distinction of being the oldest, private liberal arts HBCU for women, is frequently ranked among the nations top liberal arts colleges and is among the top 50 four-year colleges for producing both Fulbright and Truman Scholars. It is also the single largest collegiate producer of African American women holding science, engineering, and mathematics doctoral degrees. These distinctions all helped the Atlanta institution to earn the top spot on the 2017 U.S. News & World Report ranking of HBCUs.

Spelman's excellence and its output of accomplished graduates (in spite of the fact that it only enrolls just a shade over 2000 students annually) underscores the value that HBCUs still have in helping black students vault the hurtles of institutional racism.

HBCUs also form a meaningful economic bloc of the higher education sector. According to the Education Data System and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “In 2001, the combined initial spending associated with the nation's 101 HBCUs totaled $6.6 billion. Public HBCUs accounted for 62 percent of the total amount. The total economic impact of the nation's HBCUs was $10.2 billion with 35 percent due to the multiplier effect. This amount would rank the collective economic impact of the nation's HBCUs 232nd on the Forbes Fortune 500 list of the United States' largest companies (Fortune Magazine, 2006). Additionally, the total employment impact of the 101 HBCUs included 180,142 total (initial and induced) full- and part-time jobs in 2001.”

The New Struggle

And yet, in spite of their cultural and economic tenacity, the last decade has been a period of struggle for HBCUs. In a sense, argues a publication called the American Prospect, HBCUs have struggled for survival since their very founding. That many of these schools emerged in the midst of racial struggle is magnified by the embattled path that many HBCUs have taken to arrive at the present day.

As the American Prospect points out, even as HBCUs emerged to help black Americans transcend the vestiges of slavery and advance in society, they remained at the mercy of structural racism. Massive federal funding and works initiatives like the New Deal and the GI Bill channeled substantially greater resources to predominantly white institutions even as these same institutions restricted or limited access for people of color. As the Prospect explains, “The historic outright refusal of many white colleges to admit black students, coupled with constraints on the growth of HBCUs and far narrower access to federal subsidies for college education for blacks—all products of public policy—resulted in a significant unmet black demand for higher education. The drastically restricted capacity of African Americans to build wealth interacted with the financial deprivation of the very institutions that had the greatest commitment to providing blacks with higher education. That pattern persists.”

In recent years, HBCUs have suffered a fate similar to that of many other small colleges but often with greater intensity.

These patterns are only compounded by years of fluctuation in enrollment and graduation rates. Between 1976 and 2001, total enrollment in HBCUs grew from 180,059 to 222,453, but during this same period of time, the number of bachelor's degrees these schools awarded to America's black students declined from 35% to 21.5%. Of course, much of this was due to the numerous opportunities that were opening for black students in fully integrated schools. Still, with the number of black students attending HBCUs dropping from 90% in 1960 to just 11% in 2015, many of these historical colleges have faced painful economic hardships.

In recent years, HBCUs have suffered a fate similar to that of many other small colleges but often with greater intensity. The public universities among them have seen declining fiscal support at the state level and the private among them have struggled to maintain competitive enrollment numbers. The Huffington Post reports that, in 2013, decreases in federal grant funding to HBCUs and changes in the Parent PLUS Loan Program have cost black colleges more than $300 million in the last two years, one of the worst stretches in history for public HBCU support.”

The consequences were fatal or near-fatal for many of these historic institutions. In the next three years, Saint Paul's College, Knoxville College and Barber Scotia College all permanently or temporarily closed their doors.

Many other highly regarded HBCUs remain behind the financial 8-Ball. For instance, in 2015, South Carolina State University faced a temporary shutdown as state legislatures attempted to shutter the cash-strapped institution. Though outspoken students, alumni, and public advocates fought to have South Carolina's only public HBCU reinstated, it re-opened its doors with widespread reductions to faculty and staff, reduced opportunities for student scholarships, and the threat of building closures.

Even the historically-important Wilberforce was forced recently to introduce a rejuvenation plan aimed at heading off disaccreditation. Some of the proposed measures included enrollment drives, emergency fundraisers, and calls for increased donations from alumni.

While these challenges are certainly not unique to HBCUs alone, there is something distinct about the threat of closure. Whereas the general market for institutions of higher education is fairly saturated with competition, this is not so for HBCUs. Inherently, because schools that receive this designation are historic in nature, and do have historic ties to black communities in America, ties that can't be simply replicated on other campuses, each one that closes leaves a vacuum never to be filled.

Should South Carolina State University ultimately close, for instance, there will be no public HBCU to take its place in the state of South Carolina. Students seeking out this educational experience will be forced to look elsewhere. The elimination of any one HBCU could mean the closing off of opportunity to any number of would-be attendees.

All evidence suggests that HBCUs need strong public support and advocacy in order to revitalize their mission. The report from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education argues that “In many places where these data show HBCUs lagging behind their national counterparts, the disconnect reflects less on the institutions themselves than on the tendency in the United States to invest in students who need the least help instead of those who need the most. What is striking is how successful HBCUs have been in educating traditionally underserved students despite the many obstacles these institutions face.”

The idea of a post-racial America has been sharply challenged by a heightening of racial tensions in recent years—in city streets, in the political sphere, on the internet, and on the college campus. This suggests that, even absent the forces of legal segregation, HBCUs still have an important cultural, educational, and economic role to play.

As the HBCU Digest characterizes it, HBCUs are forever on the front lines of both the black struggle and black excellence. The Digest notes that “HBCUs, by their nature, live at the margins of both realities. They operate on the verges of financial crisis and cultural breakthrough every single day; empowering students and faculty to do and to give more in spite of society's push for them to disappear into a post-racial oblivion. And to their credit, students and faculty deliver in spite of the emerging social norms which make their commitment and productivity seem anonymous, racially-tinged and socially irrelevant.”

The Present Day

At their best, HBCUs serve as an environment that nurtures empowerment, belonging, and a sense of self-determination that black Americans have often battled to attain in society at large. This was particularly true in the century between the abolition of slavery and the passage of the Civil Rights Act outlawing segregation in all its forms.

But there is reason to believe that the importance of HBCUs is as great as it has ever been.

Indeed, “In his best-selling book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates observes that his own alma mater, Howard University—one of the oldest of the black universities—was 'The Mecca' for African Americans. ‘On the outside black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies, which could be commandeered by police.' But ‘here at The Mecca, we are without fear, we are the dark spectrum on parade.' For countless others, the safety and affirmation of black universities has been a haven.”


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