The Founding of Historically Black Colleges in the United States

Langston Staton

Historically Black Colleges and Universities were established very early at the beginning of the 19th century, to provide undergraduate as well as graduate level educational access to people primarily of African descent. During that time in history, Black students were not welcome at existing Private and Public institutions, better known as PWI or Primarily White Institutions. In 1799 Washington & Lee University admitted John Chavis, who was noted to have been the first African American man to be admitted into college. While the first African American man to have earned a bachelor’s degree was Alexander Lucius Twilight, who graduated from Middlebury College in 1823 with his bachelor’s degree. While the first woman to obtain her bachelor’s degree was Mary Jane Patterson from Oberlin College in 1862.

Richard Humphries was responsible for creating the African American Institute that became (Cheney University) in 1837 in Pennsylvania, making it the oldest HBCU in the United States. Now you might ask why this institution was founded? The purpose of founding this institution was to teach free African Americans, skills for successful employment opportunities. Students learned basic math, religion, arts, writing, and reading. During the 1850s three more HBCUs were founded. The following include in order: Miner Normal School (1851) in Washington D.C, Lincoln University (1854) in Pennsylvania, and Wilberforce University (1856) in Ohio.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church was responsible for establishing the first HBCU operated by African Americans. The majority were founded from 1865-1900. The greatest number of HBCUs was started in 1867, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. These were Alabama State University, Barber-Scotia College, Fayetteville State University, Howard University, Johnson C Smith University, Morehouse College, Morgan State University, Saint Augustine’s University, and Talladega College. Even a complete century later, HBCUs were still being established: J.F. Drake State Technical College (1961), University of the Virgin Islands (1962) Southern University at Shreveport (1967), and Morehouse School of Medicine (1975).

If we are being technical, HBCUs were institutions that were created before the year 1964, to educate persons of African descent. Those founded after 1964 are known as Predominately Black Institutions (PBI). HBCUs and PBIs must run under the following requirements: At least 40% African American students, and 50% low-income or first-generation degree-seeking undergraduate students. HBCUs are in Illinois, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. North Carolina by itself hosts eleven HBCUs alone; Louisiana has seven and Alabama has twelve. In addition, HBCUs have many diverse categories that include public, private, denominational, liberal arts, land grants, research-based, single-gender serving small, large, etc. The enrollment numbers range from 300 students to well over 11,000 students.

The U.S Department of Education lists 4,298-degree-granting institutions in the United States of America. According to (NCES) there were a total of 1,626 public colleges,1,687 private nonprofit colleges, and 985 for-profit colleges by the Fall of 2017. Out of this number, HBCU Make up 2.3% of the total, with 101 institutions. Going back to the 1800’s HBCUs were primarily created to provide limited educational opportunities for students of African descent who were born free or former emancipated slaves. Since then, HBCUs have expanded — 59% of these schools offer only undergraduate degrees and 41% offer graduate degrees, with 28% awarding doctoral degrees.

Most people forget to mention all the challenges that HBCUs have survived. These include, poor funding, Jim Crow, deferred maintenance, and even accreditation issues. In many political, social, and academic arenas, people tend to discredit HBCUs due to not being appropriately represented in the public eye. While that discussion goes on, other people argue that HBCUs are vital in educating the underrepresented minority in our society.

Going back to the 19th century, two important historical figures: Booker T Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, were both advocates for educating former slaves in education and agriculture, as well as having the ability to teach others. Washington was a former slave from Virginia, according to the Thurgood Marshall college fund. Washington, who attended Hampton, studied industrial education and founded Tuskegee Normal and Agricultural Institute in Alabama, so former slaves could be able to make a living for themselves. Dubois who was born a free man in Massachusetts attended Fisk University and earned his Ph.D. degree from Harvard University. While both men attained higher education in similar ways, DuBois believed that 10% of blacks could be educated at elite white institutions as he had.

One may still may wonder why HBCU’S were created. One of HBCUs’ many purposes has been to train productive African /American men and women to be community leaders and strive to accomplish great things. Also, according to the 2012 Ford foundation paper MIT Professor. Philip L. Clay commented that “HBCU students place a higher value on community service, leadership, and civic and political engagements” than their peers in non-HBCU institutions. 

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