August 24, 2021

The History of HBCUs in the United States

Cody Blanc

Historically Black Colleges and Universities have been a big part of the economic and social structure of the United States for nearly 190 years. Many students of color, many of them notable, have attended HBCUs thanks to the rich cultural and educational opportunities provided. Notable names such as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Strahan, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Vice President Kamala Harris are just a few on a long list of high achievers to graduate from various Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Let’s take a closer look at the history of HBCUs in the US to better understand their importance to people of color today.

What Are HBCUs & Why Do They Exist?

HBCU stands for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. These learning institutions are both found in the public and the private sector and have been around since the early 19th century. HBCUs were formed before the US Civil Rights Act which was passed in 1964. HBCUs specifically was created to give black people their basic rights to an education which were denied for so long due firstly to slavery, and later to segregation.

During the days of active slavery, there were anti-literacy laws that specifically barred both black slaves and free black people from seeking an education. These laws were in place to help keep black people under control and dependent upon their masters for survival. Once slavery was abolished in 1865, the wholesale discrimination prevented most from being able to pursue quality education in white universities. Segregation and discrimination were also paired with large gaps in knowledge which resulted in poor educational performance when compared to whites of the same age.

The Rich History of HBCUs in America

Due to slavery and segregation laws, Black people have always had limited access to higher education. Even when slavery was abolished and segregation was ruled illegal, black people were still not able to find solace in a peaceful educational environment. HBCUs were made to be a safe haven for higher learning where students of color could not only discover their talents but also build a community of scholars of color that allowed them to succeed.

It is important to note that many Black Americans such as Fredrick Douglass obtained an independent formal education prior to the end of the civil war and even following shortly after. With most HBCUs having been located in the southern states, a large portion of the black population was still underserved. HBCUs started with an idea of being separate, but equal in terms of education. To that end, the founding of HBCUs was also with the intent to turn black people with potential into teachers for the next generation.

The First HBCU in America & Beyond

Richard Humphreys, who was a Quaker philanthropist recognized the need for change and took the opportunity to spark the match on reform. In 1837 he started the Institute for Colored Youth in Cheyney, Pennsylvania. The point of this institution was to give former slaves a place to learn basic skills such as reading, arithmetic, and writing so that they would have a better chance of survival as free people. This actually became the very first HBCU institution in the United States and was converted to Cheyney University in February of 1837.

The founding HBCUs were mainly elementary level and secondary level. In the early 1900’s HBCUs started offering higher levels of education for the growing black community. Most of the HBCUs that exist today were founded in 1867, just a couple of years after slaves were freed but the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Once the Second Morrill Act was passed in 1890 there was an influx of new institutions dedicated to education for people of color. This act made it mandatory for those states that still supported segregation of the races to both open and provide funding for schools that catered to black students any time there was a new institution or course offered for white students. This helped many communities of color who were facing problems with access to resources and proper funding. With more money for black schools, more students were able to finally attend college like their white peers.

Most of the HBCUs were created by educated black Americans who had not or were not enslaved. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision ruled that holding separate but equal educational facilities preventing black students from access critical rights under the 14th amendment, specifically equal protection. Some, but not all HBCUs still remained segregated following this decision, which led to closures due to lack of funding and lack of essential resources. When segregation was abolished in the middle of the 1960s, a surge of predominantly black institutions was launched. These predominantly Black Institutions were intended to help increase the social and economic standing of people of color, specifically black people. PBI’s and HBCUs are often used interchangeably, as a result, PBIs are now considered HBCUs completely.

How HBCUs Impact Black People Today

Historically Black Colleges and Universities remain one of the top choices for black scholars even today. There is no longer a single path for higher education for people of color, however, HBCUs still remains a safe haven for those looking to get ahead in their field of study while also immersing themselves in their cultural heritage.

Of all the higher educational institutions in the country, HBCUs only account for 3% of the total number. Despite the lower overall percentage, these schools play a pivotal role in bridging the gap experienced by black people when seeking out higher educational opportunities. There are currently 107 HBCUs in America and while they are still predominantly black, 23% of those enrolled are actually non-black students. HBCUs offer lower tuition costs, enriching liberal arts programs, highly diverse student and teacher pools, and high-quality STEM programs among many other things.

How HBCUs Are Helping To Change The American Landscape

HBCUs have been an amazing resource for the black community in terms of educating the youth of the future and helping to shape the policies of tomorrow. Enrollment remains high not only among people of color but also among those from other cultures, religions, and ethnicities. As a result of this continued positive progress, legislation that supports financial assistance for education and increases available resources continues to pass on a regular basis. HBCUs also remain a shining beacon of hope and resilience for people of color which reminds communities as a whole that perseverance in spite of obstacles does actually pay off.

Keeping History Alive Throughout the Ages

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Image Credits

https://www.apmreports.org/episode/2020/03/05/hbcu-enrollment-latino-international-students

https://getschooled.com/article/3564-the-history-of-hbcus/
https://www.thoughtco.com/hbcu-timeline-1837-to-1870-45451
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/03/27/supporters-fear-future-cheyney-u-nations-oldest-historically-black-college
https://prospect.org/education/black-colleges-universities-still-matter/

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