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Photo: Booker T. Washington’s Graduating Class at Hampton Institute, 1875. Washington is in the first row, second from the left. Public Domian. Wikipedia Commons
In 1872, a young man arrived in Hampton Roads with a small sack of his possessions and 50 cents. A former slave, he had walked 500 miles to attend what is now known as Hampton University. At that time, it was a school for former slaves who wanted to learn skilled trades so that they could become educators and tradesmen.
That young man was Booker Talifero Washington. He would graduate from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute and then attend Wayland Seminary in Washington DC. Washington would later return to Hampton Institute to become one of the school’s educators and assist the school’s founder, General Chapman, with administrative tasks. And soon, he would travel to Alabama and build—with his hands—Tuskeegee Normal and Industrial Institute.
Thanks to his dedication to educating other African Americans, Washington would rise to become the preeminent African American leader in the United States. He would recount his early life in the autobiography Up From Slavery, sharing his desire to achieve an education and the hurdles he crossed to become the first black man to have dinner in the White House.
Washington’s accomplishments are extraordinary in every way. And each of his achievements can be traced to his education at Hampton Institute—a historically black college or university, or HBCU.
Clay Banks; Unsplash
There are currently 107 HBCUs enrolling more than 200,000 students. Fifty-six are privately funded while another 51 are public colleges and universities. According to U.S. News & World Report, the privately funded Spelman College is the highest ranked HBCU. Florida A&M and North Carolina A&T Universities share the number 7 slot and are the highest ranked public institutions.
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HBCUs graduate an estimated 20% of all African-American graduates in the United States. In addition, at least 25% of African-American graduates in the STEM fields have achieved a higher education from HBCUs.
Why Were HBCUs Established?
Students at Cheyney University. Founded in 1837 as the Institute for Colored Youth, it is recognized as the first formal school for African-Americans. Wikimedia Commons
During slavery, there were no formal schools of higher education for African Americans. Freed African Americans in the North were more often than not barred from attending white colleges and universities.
However, that all changed in 1837 when a group of Philadelphia Quakers pooled their financial resources to open the Institute for Colored Youth. The school aimed to provide African Americans with an education in various fields so that they could become teachers. The organization decided to fund the school because they saw the discrimination unskilled African Americans faced when competing for jobs against European immigrants.
Other schools, such as Lincoln University, also in Pennsylvania, and Wilberforce University in Ohio, followed suit.
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And by the time the Institute for Colored Youth had relocated to Cheyney, Pa and changed its name to the Cheyney Institute for Teachers, there were more than 30 institutions for higher learning dedicated to educating African Americans.
Many of these early schools would not be considered traditional colleges or universities by today’s standards. However, their mission was to provide an educational foundation to formerly enslaved African Americans. Initially, many schools catering to the needs of African American students provided an elementary and secondary education along with a trade. The purpose was to produce a skilled labor force and allow African Americans to get better jobs and become entrepreneurs.
Mary McCleod Bethune with students from Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls in 1905. Today, the school is known as Bethune-Cookman College. Wikimedia Commons
By the early 1900s, however, many HBCUs began offering traditional college coursework. Lincoln University, whose notable alumni include poet Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the United States Supreme Court, was the first HBCU to award a bachelor’s degree.
How Were Early HBCUs Funded?
Future Educators at Fisk University, 1900, Public Domain. Fisk University was established and funded by the American Missionary Society.
Early HBCUs were established and funded by abolitionists, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and, following the Civil War, state governments.
The American Missionary Association (AMA) played an important role in the establishment of many HBCUs. The AMA’s initial focus was to abolish enslavement. However, as the needs of African Americans evolved, so did the organization’s mission. The AMA began establishing schools and colleges during and after the Civil War as they believed that education would truly provide independence to freed African Americans.
The organization was responsible for more than 500 schools opening throughout the South, including Berea College, Fisk University, Hampton University, Clark Atlanta University, Tougaloo College, Dillard University, Talladega College, and, with the help of the Freedmen's Bureau, Howard University. In addition, the AMA established the Freedmen’s Aid Society, recruiting northern educators to teach in Southern schools.
Wilberforce University was the first college in the United States to be owned and operated by African Americans. Wilberforce and other schools founded by the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) strove to provide a classic education to African American youth. Other schools established by the AME Church include Paul Quinn College, Edward Waters College and Allen University.
The Second Morrill Act of 1890 mandated that states with segregated public higher education establish institutions specifically for African American students. As a result, public land-grant schools were opened for African American students in southern states whenever a land-grant institution was established for white students. Many of these schools offered majors in agriculture, mechanics and various industries.
How did HBCUs become significant after enslavement and during the Jim Crow Era?
Spelman College students, 1897, Public Domain. Courtesy of NYPL
Like Booker T. Washington, many former slaves attended HBCUs. At the time, the mission of these schools was to train African Americans to be skilled tradesmen, not thought leaders. Yet, these schools produced great thinkers despite their focus on trade over academics.
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Agriculturist George Washington Carver with staff at Tuskegee Institute. Wikimedia Commons
At Tuskegee Institute, for instance, George Washington Carver spearheaded studies that led to the development of several hundred products incorporating peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans.
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The Fisk Jubilee Singers, who initially began touring to raise money for Fisk University, became symbolic of African American talent and dignity in the United States.
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Fisk University is also responsible for nurturing the mind of W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the great thinkers in United States history. DuBois’ work as a sociologist and fighter for equality and justice in the United States contributed greatly to the modern civil rights movement.
HBCUs played a pivotal role in the education of African Americans. Before desegregation of public schools in the 1950s, the majority of African American college students attended HBCUs. According to the U.S. Department of Education, during the Jim Crow Era, HBCUs provided an undergraduate education for at least 75% of all African Americans holding a doctorate degree; 75% of African Americans in the Armed Forces and 80% of all African American federal judges.
It can also be argued that HBCUs played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. Attorney Charles Hamilton Houston transformed the Howard University School of Law and mentored men such as Thurgood Marshall. Houston and Marshall’s work as attorneys led to the desegregation of public schools in the South.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Morehouse College, where he learned early on to work with organizations advocating for civil rights. Learning from great
African American educators such as George Kelsey and Benjamin Mays, King realized he would spend his life fighting to eradicate racism. As he led the civil rights movement, King encouraged members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to organize and agitate for social change.
Significance of HBCUs in the post civil rights movement
Although African American students now have the ability to attend any college or university in the United States, HBCUs are still relevant institutions. According to the Thurgood Marshall Fund, 40% of all African American congressmen and engineers have graduated from HBCUs. In addition, 50% of African American lawyers, judges and professors at non-HBCUs are graduates of HBCUs.
Vice President Kamala Harris speaking with HBCU students in 2019. Wikimedia Commons
And the effects of HBCUs are still evident in the United States.
Prominent HBCU alumni include:
- media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who graduated from Tennessee State University
- film producer Spike Lee, a graduate of Morehouse College
- comedian Wanda Sykes, who studied at Hampton University
- actor Chadwick Boseman, a Howard University graduate
Some key figures from the recent national elections were also educated at HBCUs. Vice President Kamala Harris is a graduate of Howard University. Stacey Abrams, who worked diligently to motivate Georgians to vote, is a graduate of Spelman College. And as a result of Abrams’ work, Reverend Raphael Warnock was elected to the U.S. Senate—the first African-American in Georgia to hold this position.
The work of HBCUs continues to expand. Currently, HBCUs are also open to students of other races. At present an estimated 24% of students enrolled in HBCUs are not African American. In addition, many international students are enrolling in HBCUs because of their strong academics and dedication to diversity and inclusion.
With multi-million dollar donations from philanthropists such as MacKenzie Scott, Oprah Winfrey and Robert Smith as well as the consistent fundraising of the United Negro College Fund, HBCUs will remain an important part of America’s educational system.