In honor of Black History Month, I explored the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Like many other non-African Americans, I was aware of these institutions. I’d hear or read a story about them. During my military career, I was often stationed in areas where HBCUs existed. But I really didn’t know their history. Thanks to the internet, I learned more about them and wanted to share some of that with you.
For context, because of the Civil War, slaves were emancipated. Yet, while freed, the benefits of that freedom were uneven for African Americans and that included access to education. For almost a century, segregation existed especially in the former Confederate States of America. After the Reconstruction, Democratic-dominated state legislatures in the Southern United States enacted what were known as Jim Crow laws to enforce racial segregation. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, these laws required the separation of whites from “persons of color” in public transportation and schools. These laws even extended to parks, cemeteries, theaters, and restaurants attempting to prevent any contact between blacks and whites as equals.
The Civil Rights era began in the 1950s. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama and was arrested. Her case started the desegregation of public transportation. In 1957 President Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to escort students to the newly desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. This occurred because the state’s Governor called upon the state’s National Guard to prevent nine students from attending. The kids became know as the Little Rock Nine. And the final blow to Jim Crow laws was the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination based on race color, religion, sex or national origin.
Thus, the origins of historically black colleges and universities dates from the era of segregation to the present day. These were higher education institutions established with the intention of primarily serving the African American community. During segregation era, prior to the Civil Rights Act, many colleges and universities disqualified or limited African American enrollment. For example, in the South they were prohibited from attending. In other areas of the country, quotas were employed to limit admissions. HBCUs were both private and public institutions. At one point 121 existed although only 101 remain today. The only HBCU in California is the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science located in Los Angeles.
Even before the Civil War there existed a couple of HBCUs. These first few were in the north and established by independent religious institutions or philanthropic Christian missionaries. The first, in 1837, was Cheyney University in Pennsylvania. The Ashmun Institute also in Pennsylvania was founded in 1954. It later changed its name to Lincoln University to honor Abraham Lincoln after his assassination. Finally, there was Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1856. The first HBCU established in the south after the Civil War was Shaw University in 1865. Located in Raleigh, North Carolina it is a Baptist liberal arts college and is often referred to as the “mother of African American colleges in North Carolina,” because many of its alumni went on to be founding presidents of other HBCUs throughout the south.
Alabama has 12 HBCUs including the well-known Tuskegee University. North Carolina hosts 11 HBCUs including NC A&T State as well as Shaw University. Georgia is home to 10 including Spelman and Morehouse College. Texas is home to nine including Texas Southern and Prairie View. Virginia has six HBCUs that include Norfolk State and Hampton University. Others are Fisk University in Tennessee, Morris College in South Carolina, and Howard University in Washington D.C. Sports fans might know the name of these HBCUs even if they didn’t know they were a HBCU: Florida A&M and in Louisiana, Xavier and Grambling State.
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, African Americans were afforded more opportunities for higher education. Their percentages at non-HBCU institutions increased. At the same time, remaining HBCUs diversified their student bodies to include more non-African American students. The affordable nature of these HBCUs have attracted students from all racial categories. Some now even have majority student bodies that are Caucasian. However, most remain more than 50% an African American student body continuing to meet the higher education needs and purposes of the black community.