The History of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)

“HU… You Know” is a rallying cry that denotes those of us who attend or attended the Howard University. As an alumna, I love my alma mater. Attending a school that strived to drive Black excellence was one of the best decisions and best experiences of my life. Yet many people do not know the history of this and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

I can personally credit Howard University with instilling in me Black pride and knowledge that I had not previously accessed before.

The evolution of HBCUs from their inception until today has created a way to support the continued education of Black Americans throughout the United States. 

How HBCUs Began

Despite being called “universities” or “institutes,” in their early years HBCUs also provided elementary and secondary schooling for Black students who had no previous education. This is still true for Florida A&M University, which has a K-12 school within its system.

Following the Civil War, the Second Morrill Act of 1890 required states with racially segregated public higher education systems to also provide a land-grant institution (what we typically call a “state school”) for Black students. This was primarily done in each of the southern and border states after the passage of the Act.

Several new public Black institutions were founded, and some private Black schools now came under public control, with 16 of those Black institutions being designated as land-grant colleges. Many of these institutions offered courses in agricultural, mechanical, and industrial subjects, but very few offered post-secondary courses and degrees. Hence many of those schools being named “agricultural” and “mechanical” universities.

How HBCUs Evolved

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson established a “separate but equal” doctrine in public education. The Plessy decision encouraged Black colleges to focus on teacher training to provide Black instructors for segregated schools. This reduced the need for Black colleges to provide college preparatory instruction.

Thus, many HBCUs began to offer courses and programs at the post-secondary level during the early 1900s.

Howard University — where I earned my undergraduate degree — is one of the 102 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, founded in 1867 by Civil War General Oliver O. Howard as a seminary for training African American preachers. It was not originally designated as a “traditional” post-secondary education institution. 

According to Elizabeth K. Davenport, “By 1953, over 32,000 students were enrolled at private Black institutions such as Fisk University, Hampton Institute, Howard University, Meharry Medical College, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Tuskegee Institute, as well as a host of smaller Black colleges in the South. During that same year, over 43,000 students were enrolled in public Black colleges. HBCUs also enrolled 3,200 students in graduate programs. These institutions served an important role in providing education for teachers, ministers, lawyers, and doctors for the Black population in a racially segregated society.”

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine and determined that “racially segregated public schools deprive Black children of equal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

Despite the decision, most HBCUs remained segregated with poorer facilities and budgets compared with traditionally white institutions. The lack of adequate libraries and scientific and research equipment placed a serious handicap on them. Many of the public HBCUs had to be closed or merged with traditionally white institutions.

Even with the loss of many HBCUs, Black college students continued to attend HBCUs years after the decision was rendered.

After the Brown decision, Congress also passed Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide “a mechanism for ensuring equal opportunity in federally assisted programs and activities.” Even though 19 states were operating racially segregated higher-education systems at the time, the bill allowed for additional funding to HBCU’s to increase equitable learning.

The history and continued evolution of HBCUs is not just Black American history, it is American history. HBCUs stand as a testament to the determination and fortitude of Black American community to achieve quality formal education.

And they continue to play an important role in enhancing equal educational opportunity for all students.

Some Accomplishments of HBCUs according to the US Department of Education

  •   More than 80 percent of all Black Americans who received degrees in medicine and dentistry were trained at the two traditionally Black institutions of medicine and dentistry —Howard University and Meharry Medical College.
  •   HBCUs have provided undergraduate training for three quarters of all Black persons holding doctorate degrees, three quarters of all Black officers in the armed forces, and four-fifths of all Black federal judges.
  •   HBCUs are leading institutions in awarding baccalaureate degrees to Black students in the life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering.
  •   HBCUs continue to rank high in terms of the proportion of graduates who pursue and complete graduate and professional training.
  •   Fifty percent of Black faculty in traditionally white research universities received their bachelor’s degrees at an HBCU.

According to the UNCF ”HBCUs make up only three percent of the country’s colleges and universities, they enroll 10% of all African American students and produce almost 20% of all African American graduates.”

Notable HBCU graduates include:

Mary McLeod Bethune, educator and founder of Bethune Cookman College; Charles Drew, physician and medical researcher; W.E.B. DuBois, sociologist, educator, and co-founder of the NMCP; Patricia Harris, former Secretary, U.S. Departments of Health, Education, and Welfare and Housing and Urban Development; Martin Luther King, Jr., recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize; Christa McAuliffe, first educator in space; Kenneth B. Clark, psychologist; Thurgood Marshall, Supreme Court Justice; Leontyne Price, world-renowned opera soprano; Louis Sullivan, Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Kamala Harris, former Senator and Vice President of the United States, and many other Black political leaders.

 Quick Overview of HBCUs in the United States

  1.  Prior to the Civil War (1861-1865), African Americans were prohibited from any type of formal education in southern states and strongly discouraged in northern states. Despite the discouragement in northern states, there were higher education institutions (HBCUs) for African Americans prior to the Civil War:
  2.  Cheyney University (est. 1837, Pennsylvania)
  3.  University of the District of Columbia (est. 1851)
  4.  Lincoln University (est. 1854, Pennsylvania)
  5.  Wilberforce University (est.1856, Ohio)
  6.  There are 102 HBCUs across the US –
  7.  Lewis College of Business in Michigan plans to reopen (2022) thanks to two bills introduced by the governor of Michigan in late 2021.
  8.  Since HBCUs were the only schools available to the majority of African Americans, they often provided primary and secondary education along with post-secondary education.
  9.  Higher education was not desegregated until the late 1950s and early 1960s.
  10.  It wasn’t until 1965 that HBCUs were officially designated by the US Department of Education.

To learn more about HBCUs check out HBCU First and the United Negro College Fund.

About the Author, Sharitta Marshall:

As a leader and member of our Black Employee Network, Sharitta Marshall is a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion. She received her BBA in Marketing at the Howard University and her MBA in International Business from Arizona State University. In addition to being a Project Manager for Enterprise Customer Success at Udemy, she is also the author of When I Was Your Age… A Mother to Daughter Journal and the forthcoming My Mosaic Life.