Historically Black Colleges And Universities Essay

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The historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are unique American higher education institutions. These institutions often began as elementary and secondary schools and overcame significant barriers associated with racism and discrimination. Since their founding, primarily in the late nineteenth century, they have evolved into centers of leadership development for African Americans, and have produced over 90 percent of the African American college graduates during the past 100 years, although today many African Americans attend other universities. This entry provides a basic description and brief history of historically Black schools, and looks ahead to the future of these institutions.

Basic Facts

Historically Black colleges and universities are defined as institutions established specifically for the education of African Americans. Black colleges reflect the tension between the aspirations of the African Americans for equality and economic and social justice and the second-class citizenship of African Americans in American society.

HBCU’s represent 105 colleges and universities, down from a peak of 117. Thirty-eight are private, mostly religious. Many still have affiliations with their founding religious organizations. The remaining Black universities and colleges are public institutions that are located in the South, with the exception of Central State University in Ohio and Cheney State and Lincoln universities in Pennsylvania.

While they account for only 3 percent of all colleges and universities in the United States, HBCUs produce approximately 23 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by African Americans, 13 percent of all master’s degrees, and 20 percent of all first professional degrees. Three quarters of all African American Ph.D.s in the United States did their undergraduate work at historically Black colleges and universities. Early in the twentieth century, the Black militant and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois described how Black colleges inculcated their students with a sense of racial pride and instilled in them the confidence to fight against the injustices of the American social order.

Historical Context

Higher education for African Americans was limited prior to the Civil War. There were only twenty-eight African Americans recorded as receiving a college degree up to that time. Most opportunities for higher education for African Americans were limited to the New England and Middle Atlantic states, and were highly restricted. Oberlin College in Ohio and Berea College in Kentucky were among the few colleges open to African Americans.

Cheney State University (1837) and Lincoln University (1854) in Pennsylvania and Wilburforce College (1856) in Ohio are generally considered the first colleges established for African Americans. The American Colonization Society, which was concerned with sending African Americans back to Africa, and various Protestant religious denominations were the two major groups supporting the establishment of Black colleges during this period.


The end of the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves brought to Black education a new hope, with visions of opportunity and equality in fulfilling the dreams of the freed people. The reasons for these dreams were the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishment of slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment, equal access; and the Fifteenth Amendment, the right to vote.

Three separate and distinct philanthropic groups shaped and established Black colleges. They were the African American benevolent societies headed up by Black churches and led by the Baptists and African Methodist Episcopal denominations, the Northern White benevolent and denominational societies, and a group of philanthropists consisting of leaders of large corporations and wealthy individuals. Each had its own agenda.

The New England Missionaries included the Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and the Congregationalist religious denominations. They responded immediately by establishing schools, colleges, and normal (teacher training) schools. These groups established forty colleges and seventeen public colleges between 1865 and 1890.

The Congregationalists (the American Missionary Association, or AMA) established seven Black private colleges and thirteen “normal” (teacher training) schools by 1890. These schools began as colleges in name only, but the title signified their eventual purpose. Each included at its inception elementary and preparatory schools, since there were no high schools or academies for African Americans. Atlanta, Fisk, Howard, and Leland universities were able to begin college divisions by 1872.

The curriculum of these Black, private colleges was and still is largely classical, including foreign languages, mathematics, science, and philosophy. The missionary philanthropists felt that a classical education was the best means for African Americans to achieve racial equality. Thus, education, according to missionary societies, was to prepare a college-bred African American leadership that would uplift their race. The imprint of belief education, as well as a sense of purpose, morality, and order of those religious groups from the North has had a lasting effect on the climate of the Black college.

The Negro philanthropies also established a number of Black colleges. Some of the most notable ones were Allen, Morris, and Benedict (South Carolina). The Negro philanthropies’ main goals were to increase the literacy of African Americans; continue the struggle for equality and social justice; and to promote ethical, moral behavior, and racial uplift, along with training for economic improvement.

The industrial philanthropists were concerned with where African Americans fit socially and economically in the “new” South. Corporate leaders of large industries established foundations such as the Peabody and the Phelps Stokes foundations. These leaders changed the nature of the education of African Americans. The type of education that these foundations promoted was called industrial education or training. Its purpose was actually more to maintain distinct social classes than to provide occupational training. African Americans were trained for fields that corresponded with their low-status class.

The philosophy of these foundations was a combination of Christian missionary and capitalism, with the intention of insuring that African Americans remained in low-caste status. By 1890 these industrial/corporate foundations had eclipsed the religion-based missionaries in ideology and the funding of Black colleges.

The Jim Crow Era

By 1877 the White Southern state governments were reestablished by the Compromise of 1876, beginning one of the darkest periods for African Americans. They lost political representation and their right to vote, and the equality of opportunity was abrogated.

The Plessy v. Ferguson (1898) Supreme Court case codified the blatant apartheid racial system between the races with the so-called separate but equal status of Blacks and Whites. A highly discriminatory dual public higher education system was established, one for Whites and one for Blacks. The discrimination against Black public colleges and schools was so blatant that the corporate/industrial foundations, such as the Slater and Rosenwald foundations, had to intervene with funds to build schools for Blacks and pressure Southern state legislatures to increase funding for Black education.

State legislatures began to establish Black public colleges to train teachers by the end of the nineteenth century in order to meet the needs of the burgeoning African American population. By 1915, thirty-four public colleges were established. The Rosenwald, General Board, Phelp-Stokes, and Slater funds (corporate/industrialist-based foundations), established numerous normal (i.e., teacher training) schools and supported state and private colleges and universities during that period.

The industrial education model was the method of African American education preferred by the industrial foundations and Southern governments during that period. It was developed by Chapman Armstrong and incorporated into his Hampton Institute. Booker T. Washington, a former slave and protégée of Armstrong, expanded the model through his institution, the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

The famous Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois debates centered on the choice between classical education (equality) and industrial education (political accommodation) in the context of the political status of African Americans in the United States. These philosophies were proxies for the political debate on the place of African Americans in American society.

Despite numerous barriers to higher education, such as isolation and the lack of funds and recognition by the greater society, the Black private and public colleges began to evolve into unique and viable institutions for African Americans. The schools became centers of leadership development. They were able to nurture and instill in the students confidence and a commitment to community service and racial uplift.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Black public colleges were able to expand and improve somewhat the quality of education for their students through the assistance of the federal government and philanthropic groups such as the Slater and Rosen wald foundations.

The Morrill Act, in particular, helped improve Black public higher education. The first Morrill Act was enacted in 1862 to help states establish public colleges and universities to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanical arts; these were known as land-grant universities and colleges. The second Morrill Act was most important for Black education. It corrected the discriminatory policies of Southern states against African Americans when the land-grant institutions were established. African Americans were denied entrance into these institutions. The law forced the Southern states that had land-grant institutions, to establish a Black land-grant institution too. Sixteen were established throughout the South. This act allowed these colleges to provide scientifically oriented agricultural and mechanical arts programs.

Brown V. Board Of Education

There were over 100 HBCUs by 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled through the Brown v. Board of Education case that the separate but equal laws upheld in the Plessy v. Ferguson case were unconstitutional, thus ending legal apartheid in the United States. This edict did not immediately shift the African American student population from Black colleges and universities, but it established the legal basis for the eventual desegregation of all-White, higher education institutions. Black colleges and universities continued to enroll over 90 percent of the African American college-going population.

The Civil Rights Movement

By 1967 there were 111 historically Black colleges and universities. The civil rights movement ushered in a positive change of attitude in American society toward African Americans. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which put teeth into the enforcement of the Brown v. Board of Education decision along with implementation of affirmative action in the workplace. The Higher Education Amendments of the Civil Rights Act helped shape these changes of attitude and privilege of White Americans. Predominantly White universities were required to open their doors to African Americans. They responded by providing African American students with scholarships, special admissions, and academic support programs. However, these changes challenged the continued existence of Black colleges and universities. African American students could now choose between the two systems.

As a result of these events, there was a dramatic shift in the late 1970s in which African Americans began attending predominantly White colleges and universities. Over 70 percent of African Americans now attend predominantly White universities. As a result, a number of Black colleges have closed, and many are in financial jeopardy of closing.

The civil rights movement period also saw court challenges by the historical Black public universities over the blatant inequality of the dual educational system in the South. By 1967, these institutions were serving the majority of African American college and university students. Yet, their facilities were not up to standards. These challenges exposed the Black public universities to the possibility of being eliminated. They were governed by White majority legislatures that were still hostile to Black education. Most needed millions of dollars to replace or rehabilitate the campus facilities. In the United States v. Fordice Supreme Court case (against the Mississippi state higher education system), Mississippi was ordered to upgrade the Black institutions in the areas of academic programs and facilities, and to do away with the dual higher education system. The 1973 case of Adams v. Richardson affected the border and Southern states that maintained a dual university system. These states agreed to improve their Black public universities, and the Black schools were allowed to maintain their special mission.

Looking To The Future

Many critics point to the autocratic governance of a number of HBCUs, their mismanagement, and the low graduation rates. Some of the major present-day challenges for HBCUs are the lack of sufficient endowment to ensure scholarships, the inability to attract excellent staff and improve facilities, and the fact that a number of schools have been placed on probation by accreditation agencies. Numerous Black colleges have increased their endowments by establishing institutional advancement offices; cultivating donors and graduates; and obtaining help from the federal government, foundations, and organizations such as the United Negro College Fund.

Beginning with President Ronald Reagan, presidents have issued executive orders to recognize and enhance federal support of HBCUs. Congress has provided funds to enhance HBCUs through the Black College University Act (1986). HBCUs will continue to serve as institutions to train African Americans for leadership, for citizenship, and to be agents for the equality of opportunities for the African American community. In doing so, they fulfill an important function in American higher education.


  1. Adams v. Richardson, 351 f. 2D 36 (D.C., 1973).
  2. Adams v. Bennett, 675 F. Supp. 668 (D.D.C., 1987).
  3. Anderson, J. D. (1988). The education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
  4. Bowles, F., & DeCosta, F. D. (1971). Between two worlds. New York McGraw-Hill.
  5. Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
  6. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1910). College-bred Negro American. Atlanta, GA: Atlanta University.
  7. Hale, F. W., Jr. (Ed.). (2006). How Black colleges empower Black students: Lessons for higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  8. United States v. Fordice, 958 U.S. (1992).
  9. Watkins, W. H. (2001). The White architects of Black education: Ideology and power in America, 1865–1954. New York: Teachers College Press.
  10. Willie, C. V., & Edmunds, R. R. (Eds.). (1978). Black colleges in America. New York: Teachers College.

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