HBCU's in America, a short history

Thu, 1837-09-07

On this date, the Registry looks at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in America.

At their beginning in the 1830s, the main duty of these institutions was to teach freed slaves to read and write. Today, there are more than 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States, which have evolved and grown over the last 75 years. HBCUs offer African American students graduate and post-graduate degrees and a setting to nurture their soul, get a sense of identity, learn their heritage, and find a place in their community.

Before the Civil War the majority of Blacks in the United States were enslaved. Although a few free Blacks attended primarily white colleges in the North in the years before the war, such opportunities were rare and did not exist in the slave states of the South. To answer the lack of opportunity, a few institutions of secondary and higher education for blacks were structured in the antebellum years. Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, founded in 1837 as the Institute for Colored Youth, has the earliest founding date of an HBCU. For most of its early history it offered only elementary and high school-level instruction. Lincoln University, also in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania was the first HBCU to issue degrees in America.

The first great expansion in Black higher education came after the Civil War during Reconstruction. A period of incredible growth for American colleges and universities came after the Civil War and before World War I. Higher education spread mainly through institutions financed by public taxes, particularly the land-grant colleges established by the U. S. Congress through the Morrill Act of 1862. These land-grant institutions, tied with a growing system of state colleges, marked the surfacing of a unique style of American higher education: publicly supported institutions of higher learning serving a broad range of students, plus providing the cultural, economic, and political interests of various local and state communities.

Black higher education took a different path. From the Reconstruction era through World War II, the majority of black students were enrolled in private colleges. Northern religious mission societies were primarily in charge of setting up and caring for them. Black religious philanthropy also created many of these institutions. Because public education for blacks in the South did not exist, these institutions had to provide preparatory courses at the elementary and high school levels. Often they did not offer college-level courses for years until their students were ready for them.

Even so, the missionary plans of these early schools reflected the ideals of education that dominated American higher education during that period. This stressed ancient languages, natural sciences, and humanities. Blacks were trained for literacy, teaching and the professions.

Sadly the end of Reconstruction meant the return of white rule in the South, and opportunities for black professionals nearly disappeared. Thus many black and white leaders turned toward industrial training. Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute was one of the supporters of industrial training argued that Blacks should concentrate on the realistic abilities of manual labor to better suit them for the work that was available. Meanwhile, Harvard-trained scholar W. E. B. Du Bois supported the idea that black life and culture should be a primary topic of black thought and research. Du Bois criticized Washington and his allies for downplaying intellectual ambition and for appeasing Southern white leaders.

Private missionary colleges figured greatly in higher education for blacks because most states excluded blacks from publicly supported higher education. Of the 17 Southern states that ordered racially segregated education during the Jim Crow era, 14 refused to establish land-grant colleges for black students until Congress required them to do so in 1890, and the institutions they established were colleges in name only. Not one school met the land-grant requirement to teach agriculture, mechanical arts, and liberal education on a collegiate level. Du Bois's criticisms gained influence in the following decades, and by the end of World War I, black leaders had largely turned against Washington's educational theories.

The increased militancy of Du Bois and others led to student protests in the 1920s against the white administrations at Fisk, Hampton, and Howard. As a result of such protest, Mordecai Johnson was named the first black president of Howard in 1926. Blacks also continued to press for equality in higher education in public schools. Their efforts were supported by the Supreme Court decision in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada in 1938, which forced Southern state governments to provide more resources for the improvement of African American higher education than at any time since the Reconstruction era.

With the founding of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) in 1944, black colleges and universities enlisted the support of corporate philanthropy and the donations of thousands of individuals. During the early 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) turned its efforts from educational equality to school desegregation. Its work was fulfilled successfully in the Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954) desegregation decisions, but these results had little direct effect on black colleges. Success in the courts sparked a new optimism about the future of African American higher education. But during the last four decades of the 20th century, that optimism was tempered by the continued existence of old problems.

Private colleges and universities had not built up a solid financial base. At the start of the 21st century, raising money remains the major challenge for any black college president or chancellor. Private black colleges are struggling to keep their funding sources practical and to fight off financial starvation in an increasingly competitive environment. Public black colleges are fighting to obtain their fair share of state support, and this struggle is greatly compromised by inaction and resistance from state legislatures.

In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Fordice that patterns of racial segregation still remained in Mississippi’s public university system, nearly 40 years after Brown v. Board of Education. The slow elimination of segregation has in general had drawn Black students and support away from the traditional Black schools as they entered white colleges. The result is a mixed blessing for black colleges and universities. After stagnating enrollments in the 1970s and 1980s, the student population at HBCUs rose 25 percent between 1986 and 1994, an increase greater than the average for U. S. colleges and universities. HBCUs have also traditionally awarded a large percentage of the education degrees earned by blacks, and they continue to do so, awarding 37 percent in 1990.

Recently the leading producers of black bachelor of science degrees have been Southern University at Baton Rouge, North Carolina A&T State University, Howard University, Prairie View A&M University, Tuskegee University, and Grambling State University. HBCUs account for 3 percent of all institutions of higher learning in America, enroll 16 percent of all African-American students in higher education, and graduate 30 percent of all African-Americans earning bachelor’s degrees. On a specialized level, HBCUs have trained 75 percent of black Ph.D.s, 85 percent of Black physicians, 46 percent of black business executives, 50 percent of black engineers, 50 percent of black attorneys, 40 percent of black dentists, 50 percent of black pharmacists, and 75 percent of black veterinarians. Furthermore these schools are responsible for 53.4 percent of African-American public school teachers in 1993-1994. Black colleges and universities remain a significant part of American academia and an even more functional part of the present and future of African-American progress.

Black American Colleges and Universities:
Profiles of Two-Year, Four-Year, & Professional Schools
by Levirn Hill, Pub., Gale Group, 1994
ISBN: 0-02-864984-2