Our American Story

Education Steeped in African American Culture: Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Joele and Fred Michaud

Before the Civil War, when the majority of African Americans in the United States were enslaved, educational opportunities for African Americans in the South were virtually non-existent, particularly for higher education. Those like Frederick Douglass who did pursue an education in spite of it being illegal for him to do so --were forced to study informally and often on their own. In 1837, a group of Philadelphia Quakers concerned that African Americans in the North were having a difficult time competing for jobs against the influx of immigrants, created the Institute for Colored Youth. It was the first institution of higher learning for African Americans. We know it today as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.

The next crucial moment for African American higher education came in the years between the Civil War and World War I when the nation made a commitment to university studies across the country, predominately due to the government’s “land-grants” to help states form colleges and universities. Unprecedented funds poured into the creation of public colleges and universities, but few of these emerging institutions were open or inviting to African American students.

This left the African American community to spearhead their own movement toward higher education. With the support of the American Missionary Association and the Freedmen’s Bureau, seven black colleges had been founded by 1870. Many of these, including Fisk University (1866), Howard University (1867), Claflin University (1869), and Dillard University (1869) are still graduating students today.

Over the past 150 years, there have been many notable moments in the evolution of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Among the most striking occurred in the early part of the twentieth century, when two graduates from these fledgling institutions began a debate about the direction African American higher learning should take.

On one side was Booker T. Washington, a freed slave from Virginia who had taken the helm of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, now Tuskegee University. Washington believed that the best way for freed slaves and other African Americans to attain equality in the United States was to focus on preparing themselves for the jobs that were available, mainly agricultural and mechanical trades.

Created by: C. M. Battey Subject of: Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington
ca. 1908

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Tuskegee Archives

Farther north, W.E.B. DuBois had a very different view. DuBois was raised in Massachusetts and wasn’t exposed to segregation until he was an undergraduate at Fisk University in Nashville. He believed African Americans needed to look beyond vocational training. Equality would only come if African Americans studied the arts and sciences and became thought leaders for the next generation.

Black colleges and universities responded by trying to create programs that reflected both the practical necessities that Washington espoused as well as DuBois’ broader intellectual vision.

By 1943 the struggle for funding led Dr. Fredrick D. Patterson, president of the Tuskegee Institute, to publish an open letter to the presidents of other black colleges and universities. He urged them to pool their resources and fundraising abilities and work together to help all black colleges and universities prosper. Just one year later, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) was created to solicit donations for black colleges nationwide. The UNCF still exists today and has provided $3.6 billion in support to HBCUs and higher education for African Americans in the United States.

Throughout the ups and downs of HBCUs, the students who have attended these institutions have thrived and gone on to influence many important fields. Thurgood Marshall, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Alice Walker and Charles Drew, the physician who organized the first large-scale blood bank in the United States, to name just a few, were all alumni of HBCUs.

Still today, HBCUs are standouts for student achievement. While representing just three percent of the nation’s institutions of higher learning, they graduate nearly 20 percent of African Americans. In addition, the institutions graduate more than 50 percent of African American professionals and public school teachers, as well as the majority of the African American doctoral degree recipients.

HBCUs no longer exclusively serve African Americans. Today’s institutions have a significant percentage of non-African American students, including Asian, Latino, white American and students from many foreign countries. All of these students benefit from the unique education steeped in African American history and culture that HBCUs provide.

Students attending HBCUs are immersed in a nurturing and intellectually stimulating environment that connects them with African-American history and inspires them to carry the indefatigable African American spirit forward. Through rigorous academics and enriching extra-curricular options on campus including an energetic network of fraternities and sororities, students acquire a deep appreciation for excellence, a passion for community service, and a commitment to become leaders and mentors for the next generation.

When African American students have many options for higher learning, HBCUs are still in high demand because of their unique educational environment and their proven record of helping African Americans achieve success. After nearly more than 150 years, HBCUs continue to keep their eyes on the horizon and will surely be reflecting and shaping the African American experience for many generations to come.

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