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Historically Black Colleges and Universities Pages: 1 | 2

black students in the 30s
There are more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities in the United States today. These institutions of higher learning, whose principal mission is to educate African Americans, have evolved since their beginning in 1837 when their primary responsibility was to educate freed slaves to read and write. At the dawn of the 21st century, along with graduate and post-graduate degrees, historically Black colleges and universities offer African American students a place to earn a sense of identity, heritage and community.

Segregation Era
Before the Civil War (1861-1865) the majority of Blacks in the United States were enslaved. Although a few free Blacks attended primarily White colleges in the North in the years before the war, such opportunities were very rare and nonexistent in the slave states of the South. In response to the lack of opportunity, a few institutions of secondary and higher education for Blacks were organized in the antebellum years. Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, founded in 1837 as the Institute for Colored Youth, has the earliest founding date of an HBCU, although for most of its early history it offered only elementary and high school level instruction. The first great expansion in Black higher education came after the war, however, during the widening opportunities of Reconstruction (1865-1877).

Private Institutions
The years between the Civil War and World War I (1914-1918) were an era of tremendous growth for American colleges and universities. Higher education spread primarily through institutions financed by public taxes, particularly the rapidly expanding land-grant colleges established by U.S. Congress in the Morrill Act of 1862. These land-grant institutions, coupled with a growing system of state colleges, marked the emergence of a distinctive style of American higher education: publicly supported institutions of higher learning serving a broad range of students as well as the cultural, economic, and political interests of various local and state constituencies.

African American higher education took a different path. From the Reconstruction era through World War II (1939-1945) the majority of Black students were enrolled in private colleges. Northern religious mission societies were primarily responsible for establishing and maintaining the leading Black colleges and universities. African American religious philanthropy also established a significant number.

students in black college
Given the virtual nonexistence of public education for Blacks in the South, these institutions had to provide preparatory courses at the elementary and high school levels for their students. Often they did not offer college-level courses for years until their students were prepared for them. Nonetheless, the missionary aims of these early schools reflected the ideals of classical liberal education that dominated American higher education in general in that period, with its emphasis on ancient languages, natural sciences, and humanities. Blacks were trained for literacy, but also for teaching and the professions.

wood shop at Clafin University
Claflin University wood shop
(Library of Congress)


With the end of Reconstruction and the return of White rule in the South, however, opportunities for African American professionals became scarcer. Consequently many Black and White leaders turned toward industrial training. The proponents of industrial training, whose most public spokesman was Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, argued that African Americans should concentrate on the more practical arts of manual labor to better suit them for the work that was available.

Meanwhile, Harvard-trained scholar W. E. B. Du Bois was charting another path. Du Bois paired the liberal and scientific ideals of the missionaries with a conviction that Black life and culture should be a primary topic of Black thought and investigation. Du Bois criticized Washington and his allies for downplaying intellectual ambition and for appeasing Southern White leaders. Du Bois's criticisms gained influence in the following decades, and by the end of World War I, Black leaders had largely turned against Washington's educational theories. The increased militancy of Du Bois and others led to student protests in the 1920s against the White administrations at Fisk, Hampton, and Howard. As a result of such protest, Mordecai Johnson was named the first Black president of Howard in 1926.

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