The History of Historically Black Colleges & Universites
Written By: David C. Coleman
This historical perspective follows the establishment of HBCU's in the 19th century to the emerging changes and challenges facing these institutions today.
A Phoenix high school student recently asked his teacher, "If racial segregation is illegal in the United States, why do we have a number of institutions called Historically Black Colleges and Universities or HBCU's?
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Good question! Let's take a few minutes to examine that question, and in our effort to do that, learn about the HBCU's and the historical backdrop against which they rest.
HBCUs actually were "invented" in 1837, 26 years before the end of slavery. Richard Humphreys, a Quaker philanthropist, founded the Institute for Colored Youth to train free blacks to become teachers.
The school had moved from Philadelphia to Cheyney, where it eventually became Cheyney University, and by 1902 at least 85 schools were set up by white philanthropists, free blacks, states or churches to educate sons and daughters of former slaves.
Until 1954 and the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which ended "separate but equal" school systems, HBCUs were the number 1 option for most blacks interested in attending college.
In the usually sleepy town of the campuses where many of these schools were situated there was an atmosphere generally free of distractions. In each town where a black college grew up its faculty and students were, with the preachers, viewed by the nearby residents with pride. They were the elite of their host town, city, or county among the "colored" citizenry.
Graduates of a four-year college who went off to teach or be principal at a dirt- floor school arrived looking as conservatively proper the Secretary of State. There was much emphasis on speech and deportment. And in those early nineteenth century settings a college student's dress and carriage was often markedly distinct from the sometimes loose and boisterous manner of the farm workers and black townspeople, who often mocked them, but secretly emulated the collegians' manner and conservative style. The early black colleges were a source of monstrous respect and pride.
From institutions formed to serve former slaves to institutions serving the new black middle-class-to-be. Black colleges at the beginning of the new millennium hang in and continue to produce, despite a fierce fight for survival.
Because of the black college, social networks were developed from campus life among men and women of color from all quarters of the nation. These networks became assets as black political awareness rose and as blacks from HBCU's nudged into new categories of jobs and at levels from interns to governors.
Today on HBCU campuses black astronauts and four-star generals, the former black commander of the Pacific fleet and the chairman of the board of the world's largest brokerage visit to say: Come in, the water's fine. Dream whatever you choose.
Computer scientists and black women airline pilots of mega-sized 747's from, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, go to work every day, well prepared to handle business with the foundation laid by their HBCUs.
One of the most important factors that contributed to the evolution of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities was the financial support that started to be offered by the alumni and African American supporters. Millions of dollars being donated to HBCUs from noted public figures such as Bill Cosby, helped to build a new image for many of the colleges that at one time existed without any real financial backing.
The choir at Howard University had a song in its repertoire that was a favorite for many years: Keep On Inching Along. Perhaps that should be the theme of America's proud Historically Black Colleges and Universities as they enter the twenty-first century riding on a legacy of success against the odds.
Over 100 years later, Historically Black Colleges and Universities still stand. Their character and missions will continue to change and evolve but best believe they will be around for many years to come.
Some might debate over what the driving force will be behind the survival and success of HBCU's. Many scholars, columnists and educators will argue on the one hand, that HBCUs will be lead into their bright future by their individual leadership, and successful dedicated staff and professors. On the other hand, just like with any thriving business, HBCUs are driven by the demand for the unique educational environment that only an HBCU can provide. It is a fact that there are hundreds of thousands of African American high school students that love what they see when watching a Black College bowl game, the half time shows, the black Greek life, the unity and togetherness, all unmatched when compared to the environment at a non-HBCU institution. Yes, the high schools students that demand to goto HBCUs, the current students that attend and love their HBCUs, and the alumni that have graduated from HBCUs and send back millions of dollars in support and opportunities, all play a major part in the bright future of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
One of the trends that we can expect to continue to a certain extent is the rapid desegregation of many of the public and state funded HBCUs. If you want to get a feel for the effects of desegregation on HBCU campuses, take a look at West Virginia State University, which is Historically Black in it's foundation but currently boasts a majority white student body. This trend will most likely continue as the student body at some of the HBCUs approaches the ratio of whites to blacks in the surrounding city or state.
Even though HBCUs remain at the lower end of the scale when it comes to the costs of tuition, they will have to do their best to compete with white schools when it comes to the living standards. In an age where more and more black students have choices, many don't want to give up quality. Where many white schools have dormitories with high-speed Internet connections, cable TV, microwaves, and suites with kitchens and private bathrooms, it will be the task of the Black Colleges to keep up and offer similar amenities.
In the future we will continue to see the most valuable assets that these institutions have to offer; the graduates that they produce. That is what makes our HBCUs indispensable.