Among the most crucial tools of oppression within the system of U.S. slavery, were the restrictions against educating enslaved African Americans. With laws enacted as early as 1800 making it illegal for the enslaved to read and write, the road to citizenship and enfranchisement following Emancipation relied desperately upon newly freed African Americans attaining an education. While many whites accepted the idea of pauper education for both poor whites and freed Blacks, state governments – particularly in the South – either blocked access or withheld funding from Black schools. The result was a massive campaign among white Northern benevolent societies, African American philanthropic organizations, and various religious organizations, most notably the American Baptist Home Mission Society, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the American Missionary Association, to establish colleges, universities and seminaries. These institutions – historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) would eventually number more than two hundred and establish a rich academic and intellectual tradition within Black America. 

“The school was the one thing needful, and the ability to read and write was the golden key to unlock the riches of the world. The story of those days is a touching one,” historian and mission writer Jay Samuel Stowell wrote in 1904. “All over the Southland, groups might be seen sitting far into the night poring over the primer or the spelling book. Tottering old men and women sat side by side with their children and their children’s children endeavoring to master the intricacies of the ABCs."

Students at Roger Williams University in 1899, Library of Congress.

That same year, when William S. Shallenberger submitted his Annual Report of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, the organization showed an expenditure for Black college teachers’ salaries of more than $130,000 – or the equivalent of $3.6 million in 2018. 

“It were [sic] surely a cruel hand that would take away from this people the key to the kingdom of knowledge, or keep them from entering an open door,” Stowell said, echoing the sentiments of white Northern philanthropists., who believed a classical liberal education for Blacks would promote racial equality and assimilation into mainstream culture.

ABHMS proved pivotal in anchoring Black education and social uplift before, during, and following Emancipation, initially fighting for the abolition of slavery, and later advocating for the education of the nearly 4 million freed. Noting that in the absence of training or formal education, African Americans faced a return to servitude, ABHMS and the Women’s American Baptist Home Mission Society worked to found twenty-seven institutions of higher learning, including Morehouse College, Spelman College, Benedict College, Shaw University, Virginia Union University and Florida Memorial College.

Dr. Wendell P. Whalum of Morehouse College conducts the Morehouse College Glee Club, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Horace C. Henry, © Horace Henry.

Where land proved difficult to secure, Baptist, AME, Presbyterian and Methodist church leaders used portions of their sanctuaries to initiate basic lessons in math and reading.  Some went on to fully fund schools, while others worked with white philanthropic organizations like the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which funded one-third of the costs related to educational programs. The church and surrounding community were responsible for supplying the remainder. In this way, African Americans steadfastly advocated for and exercised agency over the development of HBCUs.  

“Washerwomen shared their earnings, Sunday-school children gave their pennies, and others gave their hard-earned dollars that the work of the schools might go on and that their children might have their ‘chance’. One school reported $1,900 subscribed by colored people in the direst poverty, and all of it paid in full to the very last nickel. Many other subscriptions varying in amount were made and paid. There seemed to be no sacrifice too great for these humble people who, out of the depths, were for the first time started on the path of enlightenment,” Stowell reported.

Such was the case, in 1867, two years after the Civil War ended, when the Augusta Institute was established in Atlanta, Georgia, in the basement of Springfield Baptist Church, the oldest independent African American church in the United States. Augusta Institute, later known as Morehouse College, epitomized the rapid growth of historically Black colleges and universities from teacher and ministerial training grounds, to diverse centers of academia – with degree conferring programs in science, social work, medicine, and liberal arts. 

Among the most crucial tools of oppression within the system of U.S. slavery, were the restrictions against educating enslaved African Americans.

To offer some insight as to the far reaches of church involvement in the establishment of these schools, note that a group of Quakers worked to establish the first HBCU, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania in 1837.  The American Missionary Association maintained Fisk University, Straight (now Dillard University), Talladega, and Tougaloo Colleges. The Freedmen’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal church founded Bennett College, Clark University, Claflin College, Meharry Medical College, Morgan State University, Philander Smith College, Rust College, and Wiley College, while serving as administrators of Benedict College, Bishop College, Morehouse College, Shaw University, Spelman Seminary, and Virginia Union University.  Similarly, the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen maintained Biddle University (now Johnson C. Smith), Knoxville College, and Stillman Seminary.  The African Methodist Episcopal church maintained Allen University, Morris Brown College, and Wilberforce College, in addition to Paul Quinn College, Edward Waters College, Kittrell College, and Shorter College. 

“Over the decades, these church-founded colleges and universities developed a finely tuned balance between their religious roots and their secular missions. As institutions of higher education accredited by secular agencies, and as educators of students who, upon graduation, needed to compete in the job market, they offered courses that would prepare their students for employment,” Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund told CNN. “But as church-affiliated institutions, their education provided another element: The education emphasized moral character and community service.”

A stereographic postcard of Howard University in the late 19th century, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Philanthropic organizations like the Carnegie Corporation, Julius Rosenwald Fund, and the General Education Board (funded by John D. Rockefeller), however,offered the greatest level of funding and direction to Black colleges at the turn of the twentieth century.  In 1919, an Annual Report of the General Education Board 1920-1921 documented that Rockefeller provided $24.9 million in funds to Black colleges, universities, and individual Black scholars.  GEB funds influenced endowments, capital construction, professional schools, fields of specialization, and fellowships for scholars at schools like Howard, Tuskegee, Hampton, and Fisk.  

Historically Black colleges and universities celebrate their illustrious legacy founded upon the guiding principles of scholarship and service.  By welcoming the financial and institutional support of philanthropists and an array of religious organizations, Black educational institutions continue to play a key role in the fight for socioeconomic equality and parity that African Americans still strive for today.  As a 2017 Brookings Institute study noted, HBCUs are more successful, in advancing students from the lowest-income brackets into the top quintile as adults than the average postsecondary institution –achieving their missions to educate and elevate generations of students since their founding.


  • Bobby L. Lovett. America's Historically Black Colleges & Universities: A Narrative History from the Nineteenth Century into the Twenty-first Century. Mercer University Press, 2011
  • Ronyelle Bertrand Ricard, M. Christopher Brown.  Ebony Towers in Higher Education: The Evolution, Mission, and Presidency of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  Stylus Publishing, 2008
  • James D. Anderson.  The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935.  University of North Carolina Press, 2010
  • Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, Charles Reagan Wilson. Religion and the American Civil War.  Oxford University Press, 1998
  • William H. Brackney. Congregation and Campus: Baptists in Higher Education. Mercer University Press, 2008
  • W.E.B. DuBois.  The College-bred Negro.  Study of the Negro Problems. Atlanta University Publications, No 5: The College-bred Negro: Report of social study made under the direction of Atlanta University; together with the proceedings of the fifth Conference for the study of the Negro problems, held at Atlanta University, May 29-30, 1900.
  • Jay Samuel Stowell. Methodist Adventures in Negro Education


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