The first colleges for African Americans were established largely through the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau and black churches and missionary organizations such as the American Missionary Association. The second Morrill Act of 1890 required states—especially former confederate states—to provide land-grants for institutions for black students if admission was not allowed elsewhere. As a result, many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were founded.

Between 1861 and 1900 more than 90 institutions of higher learning were established. Shaw University—founded in Raleigh, N.C., in 1865—was the first black college organized after the Civil War.

HBCUs are defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965 as “any historically black college or university established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary [of Education].”

Ain’t no telling where I may be / Might see me in D.C. / At Howard homecoming / With my man, Capone, dumbing. The Notorious B.I.G. American Rapper

HBCUs: Homecoming


  • The Alumni Mixer
  • The Step Show
  • The Yard
  • The Game
  • The Halftime Show
  • The Closing Chapel Service 

The Alumni Mixer

Scores of esteemed scholars have graduated from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which also have fostered many important political movements. Notable academics like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois, both HBCU alumni, used their respective universities to advance discussions about overcoming racial prejudice and uplifting the African American community. Great leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement—Stokely Carmichael, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Joseph Lowery and Diane Nash, to name a few—were educated and nurtured on HBCU campuses.

Share Your Story

Do you have distinct memories of your homecoming experience at a historically black college or university? Visit the Community Curation Platform, sign up for a free account, and help us celebrate HBCUs!
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Share Your Story

Coronations? Parades? Halftime performances? Preserve your memories for the next generation with our Community Curation Program, an initiative of the museum’s Center for the Digitization and Curation of African American History funded by Robert F. Smith.
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Share Your Story

In October, the Smith Center will provide digitization services to local partners in Nashville including the city’s revered HBCUs. Alumni of Fisk, Meharry Medical College, American Baptist College, and Tennessee State University are especially encouraged to submit photos and videos about your homecoming experiences.
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The Step Show

Fraternity pledges for Omega Psi Phi practice their stepping routine in the Fisk University gymnasium, Nashville, Tennessee, 1969.
 Omega Psi Phi Fraternity pledges,  Fisk University, 1969
Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

Stepping, a ritual dance performance based on synchronized movements and linked to African cultural traditions, originated among Black fraternities in the mid-1900s. It developed as a way for African American fraternities and sororities to express love and pride for their respective organizations to a broader community.

The impact of Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) fraternities and sororities cannot be overstated for undergraduates, graduates, and alumni. Lifelong friendships and career network opportunities are formed in the National Pan-Hellenic Council (today known as the “Divine 9”), which includes Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Delta Sigma Theta, Phi Beta Sigma, Zeta Phi Beta, Sigma Gamma Rho and Iota Phi Theta.

 Members of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. perform a step routine during 2022 HBCU Gamerfest at Forbes Arena at Morehouse College on April 27, 2022 in
Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Morehouse College, 2022
Paras Griffin/Getty Images
Photograph of the 1929 Tuskegee Institute men's basketball team
Strategic Partnerships

Preserving a Proud Legacy

Launched in March 2021, the HBCU History and Culture Access Consortium works with a select group of HBCU partners to strengthen HBCU museums and archives, while fortifying their distinct roles in American history.

Learn More about Preserving a Proud Legacy

A Map of all Historically Black Colleges and Universities

View the locations and founding dates of HBCUs in the United States

"I first witnessed this power out on the Yard, that communal green space in the center of the campus where the students gathered and I saw everything I knew of my black self multiplied out into seemingly endless variations."

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Between the World and Me

The Yard

Whether it’s called the Hill, Quad, Block, or other nicknames, the center or main part of a campus often is affectionately known as the Yard. It’s the site for plenty of activities—many formal and informal gatherings. Flanked by several major buildings, the Yard is a chief open space for students, faculty and the general public to commune.

93rd Annual Howard University Homecoming Game

HBCUs Foster Scholarship, Culture and Community

HBCU campuses have always been places that foster the development and achievement of African Americans.
Learn More about HBCUs Foster Scholarship, Culture and Community
A car with the roof folded back drives through the photos left frame; a banner which reads "MISS M.V.C." hangs from the car's left front door. Reflections in the windshield obscure the face of the man driving while the three women seated in the backseat are clearly visible. They are dressed formerly in hats and white gloves as part of a parade. The people lining the streets anticipate the next car cruising past. From left to right: Louise Washington, Ina C. Rucker Miss MVC 1956 & 1957, Thelma Patterson.

5 Things To Know: HBCU Edition

HBCUs are defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965 as, “…any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964” whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans.
Learn More about 5 Things To Know: HBCU Edition
A group 3 friends posing in Johnson C. Smith University gear

Looking Back at HBCU Homecomings: 2022

They had to make the trip. They had to come. Homecoming season was in full effect at many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) across the nation.
Learn More about Looking Back at HBCU Homecomings: 2022

The Game

5 You Should Know: NFL Legends Who Went to HBCUs

In recognition of the storied HBCU homecoming season, we’ve highlighted five African American scholar-athletes who carried on the tradition of Tank Younger, the first player to get drafted in the NFL from an HBCU. These five scholar-athletes broke barriers, set records, and changed the game.

Sports and marching bands are two distinctive and celebrated features of many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). At these universities, sports and marching bands are an essential part of college life, and even figure prominently in prospective students' decisions to attend certain universities today.  

HBCU football programs were major producers of elite football talent throughout the 1970s. These institutions’ commitment to investing in the top African American athletes became a draw for both potential students and recruiters. In addition to developing top-level players, these programs allowed aspects of African American culture to blossom on and off the field. 

Sports, style and technique came together during athletic halftime performances. These performances included themed Battle of the Bands competitions, step-show contests, and fraternity and sorority traditions. Football rivalries created opportunities for alumni and fans to express unique pride in their institutions.

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The Jackson State University Marching Band aka The Sonic Boom of the South

The Halftime Show

Musical Life at HBCUs

Generations of dedicated educators and performers have made HBCUs into hubs of musical life. In the South during the Jim Crow Era, when many concert venues were off-limits for Black people, HBCUs welcomed Black audiences into musical performances that would have been inaccessible otherwise. HBCUs have also been essential training grounds for Black musicians in genres ranging from classical to jazz and R&B.

Homecoming games are also where enthusiastic marching bands display their fierce musical talent and highly spirited styles. They are focal points of school spirit, pride, and student camaraderie.

The halftime performance at Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) football games has become an important extension of the athletic contests. Beginning in the 1940s, HBCU bands began to break from the traditions of military-inspired marching bands by incorporating dancing and upbeat music into halftime shows. A catalyst for this change in style was cemented with the creation of Florida A&M’s Marching 100 in 1946.

The Marching Band
The band is one of the most celebrated groups at an HBCU. Tuskegee Institute, now known as Tuskegee University, has one of the oldest continually active HBCU bands. Some of the legendary musical directors for the Marching Crimson Pipers include Dr. William P. Foster, who directed Florida A&M University’s Marching 100 from 1946 until his retirement in 1998, and Edward L. Graves, who served as band director at Tennessee State University for 34 years. Distinguished Tuskegee band alumni include writer Ralph Ellison, music icon Lionel Ritchie, former Georgia State Senator Floyd Griffin, Jr., and Conrad “Hutch” Hutchinson Jr., the legendary band director of Grambling State University’s World Famed Tiger Marching Band.

The Majorettes
Rhythmic dance troupes strut, stomp, sway, sashay in energetic choreographed routines, decked out in bedazzled, decked out uniforms. Their styles and dance moves - influenced by military step, jazz, West African and hip hop - engage crowds. Generations of HBCU homecoming crowds have enjoyed the performances of dancers such as the Southern University Dancing Dolls, Jackson State University’s Prancing J-Settes, and Alcorn State’s Golden Girls.

The Closing Chapel Service

Founded with the support of the Freedmen’s Bureau and church and missionary organizations, like the American Missionary Association, the various Baptist conventions, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) made religious study a part of their instruction. 

They made a significant impact on Black faith communities by placing an emphasis on students’ spiritual development and through theological education. Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays,  one of the notable presidents of Morehouse College and dean of Howard University’s School of Religion, Mays played an integral role in religious education. Influencing religious leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1955 Mays wrote “Who Will Preach to Negroes in 1980” as a way of discussing the importance of religious education as a means of tackling social issues. In 1958, he helped establish the Interdenominational Theological Center at the Atlanta University Center, welcoming seminarians from various denominations across the country.

Gospel Choirs
These campuses grew into foundational sites for Black choirs following Emancipation, with HBCU singers gaining international success. Choirs, including those at Hampton Institute (later Hampton University) and the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, used performance proceeds to “sing up” buildings on their campuses and promote Black education globally. In 1873 for instance, the Jubilee Singers earned enough money to construct Fisk’s first permanent building, Jubilee Hall. Many of the early musical selections consisted of “slave songs” and were instrumental in preserving this unique American musical tradition known today as “Negro spirituals.”

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Fisk Jubilee Singers performing "I Want Jesus To Walk With Me (feat. Ruby Amanfu)," YouTube

Applications Open for Fellowship for HBCU Graduates

The Robert Frederick Smith Applied Public History Fellowship for HBCU Graduates offers a two-year appointment providing advanced training and scholarly support in public history, museum management, outreach programming, and partnership building.

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