Before the Civil War, there was no formal education for Blacks. Very few could even read and write, and those who did faced harsh punishment and even death for being able to, as did those who taught them.
After the Civil War, institutes of learning began to form in the southern and eastern states, solely dedicated to educating newly freed Blacks, hence the birth of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Fisk University, Morehouse College, Howard University and Tuskegee Institute are just a few. In addition to academics, these institutes of learning offered a sense of community, pride and culture.
The nation’s first Black college was Cheney University in Pennsylvania. It was founded in 1837, nearly three decades before the Emancipation Proclamation, as the Institute for Colored Youth, offering studies at the elementary and high school levels.
In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which sparked a growth in the number of dedicated Black colleges as well as creating a system of state colleges. In response to the Industrial Revolution, these “land grant” colleges offered training in agriculture, science and engineering. A second Morrill Act was passed in 1890 aimed directly at the former Confederate states. Each state had to prove that college admission was not determined by race or designate a separate land grant institution for a segregated school. The result was 16 colleges exclusively for Black students.
Throughout the Reconstruction era, dedicated Black institutions began to appear. They offered preparatory courses at elementary and high school levels to prepare students for college. Students were trained in teaching and other professions.
Many Black churches in the South also had their own schools to prepare students for advanced study. This created a demand for teachers. Between 1861 and 1870, the American Missionary Association founded a series of Black colleges and 13 normal (teaching) schools. These institutions would produce generations of Black leaders, teachers and scholars.
As Reconstruction came to an end and white rule tightened in the South, professional opportunities dwindled for Blacks and the focus shifted to industrial training. One of the biggest supporters of this type of training was Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington believed that Blacks should focus on practical vocational training. He believed that Blacks could achieve wealth and equality through hard work in the trades.
On the other side of the discussion was the Harvard-trained intellectual W. E. B. DuBois, who argued that Washington was encouraging Blacks to downplay their intellectual ambitions to please Southern white leaders. DuBois believed that Blacks should not limit themselves to vocational training but also study liberal arts. By the end of World War I, Black students and leaders sided with DuBois against Washington’s theories. Student protests in the 1920s at Howard, Fisk and Hampton universities resulted in Mordecai Johnson being named the first Black president of Howard University in 1926.
HBCUs enjoyed a swell of new students and support from philanthropists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. In 1928, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools began to formally accredit them.
The Great Depression hit the HBCUs especially hard, wiping out the finances of many of their supporters. Fundraising during a depression was tough and took teachers away from the job of teaching.
In 1944, the United Negro College Fund was formed. Its famous slogan, “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” was coined from an open letter printed in the Pittsburgh Courier. The letter was written by Dr. Frederick D. Patterson, president of Tuskegee University. In it, he urged Black colleges and universities to pool their resources and fundraising efforts to help the colleges, which were greatly under-funded compared to white institutions.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled to end segregation in public schools in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. The case was argued by Howard Law School graduate Thurgood Marshall, who later became the nation’s first Black Supreme Court justice.
On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous ruling: “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
This marked the end of the so-called “separate but equal” system that was anything but equal for Black schools. States now had to provide more funding for all Black schools, including HBCUs, and open all universities to Black students. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act legally ended all forms of segregation. The Higher Education Act of 1965 made more funds available to Black colleges and students. But nearly a decade later, segregation in colleges and universities was challenged in the 1973 case of Adams v. Richardson, which found 10 states in violation of the Civil Rights Act for supporting segregated institutions.
Another important ruling came in the 1992 case of the United States v. Fordice. The Supreme Court ruled against Mississippi’s segregated school system.
Today, there are more than 100 HCUs. Statistics show that students who attend these HBCUs get better social and academic support and graduate more frequently than at white universities. They offer culture, pride and history and remain an important part of our future.
Famous HBCU graduates include media titan Oprah Winfrey from Tennessee State University; civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Morehouse College; Keenan Ivory Wayans from Tuskegee University; and Harlem’s own Dr. Muriel Petioni from Howard University.