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Reconstruction Period Research Forum

HBCUs: Historically Black Colleges & Universities

The proliferation of colleges and universities for Blacks during Reconstruction in the South opened up higher education opportunities.

Though accreditation discrepancies would not allow a clear count of graduates, over 50 black-serving institutions came of age following the Civil War. HBCU’s were significant because there was virtually no opportunity for black students to attend white/ predominately white state institutions in the South.

Historically Black College or University (HBCU)
The concept of black colleges goes beyond the racial composition of its student body and faculty. It is a concept that is rooted in history. To understand the history of the black college, it may be useful to consider public policy as it has passed through five major stages with respect to the education of blacks.

1. Prohibition
Prior to the Civil War, public policy in the South prohibited the education of blacks. In certain northern states, abolitionists such as the Quakers established institutions to educate free blacks or runaway slaves. Cheyney University (founded in 1837), Lincoln University (founded in 1854) in Pennsylvania, and Wilberforce University in Ohio (founded in 1856) count themselves among the first historically black colleges.

2. Encouragement
The second period (1865-1896) was one of federal encouragement of black educational institutions. This period included the end of the Civil War until the Plessey vs. Ferguson decision in 1896, in which the Supreme Court constitutionally condoned segregation. It was also a period which saw the establishment of many historically black institutions, both public and private, with the encouragement and support of the federal government. Most of the historically black colleges that exist today trace their roots to this period.

3. Segregation
The third period (1896-1954) was initially one of enforced segregation in the education of blacks. Legally, those attending black colleges were to have been accorded equal education, though in a separate environment. In practice, the black colleges were consistently deprived of equal educational resources. When it appeared in the 1940s that the courts would rule against this blatant unconstitutional inequality, states desperately sought to make black colleges equal—to keep blacks out of white universities.

4. Desegregation
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that legally segregated schools were inherently unequal. However, the dismantling of this dual system was not made with any meaningful efforts until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. With encouragement from the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, states adopted a variety of techniques to increase the enrollment of black students at white institutions and white students at historically black colleges. There was a prevailing belief that preserving a black identity would perpetuate the segregation of blacks and whites. However, the potential that black colleges would be dismantled by desegregation was generally overlooked or ignored—although some considered it with alarm.

5. Enhancement
A number of events occurred in the late ‘70s and ‘80s to shift public policy from that of racial neutrality to that of an initial acceptance, tolerance, and finally encouragement of black colleges as racially identifiable and part of the pluralistic system of higher education. Instead of disproportionately desegregating historically black colleges, they were to be enhanced. With the persistent under-representation of blacks in most managerial, policy-making, and professional positions—all of which required a college education—and demonstrable proof that the black colleges were contributing out of proportion to their numbers to increasing the flow of educated blacks going into the mainstream of society, the historically black colleges were increasingly recognized as positive instruments for integrating the broader society. Black colleges were also increasingly being appreciated as havens for able students who were financially in need and rejected elsewhere.

Finally, and most importantly, positions taken by the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the Federal government reinforced the acceptability of black identifiability. The Supreme Court declared that the use of race-specific remedies to address the effects of past legally-enforced segregation was constitutional. Thus, it became legal to target assistance to the historically black colleges.

Today, there are approximately 106 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which are defined by the White House Initiative on HBCUs as “Those institutions of postsecondary education that were originally founded, or whose antecedents were originally founded, for the purpose of providing education opportunities for individuals of the Negro or colored race, and which continue to have as one of the primary purposes the provision of postsecondary opportunities for Black Americans.” The 106 HBCUs are located in 20 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands. These institutions include accredited two- and four-year as well as graduate and professional institutions.

Editorial updated in September, 2001 by Dr. Wilma Roscoe, Interim President & CEO of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEHO). Based on excerpts from “What is a Black College”, by former NAFEHO president, Dr. Samuel L. Myers from NAFEHO Inroads, Feb./Mar. 1987. Contemporary statistics from “A Status Report of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities and NAFEHO’s Other Equal Opportunity Educational Institutions”, compiled and prepared by Alicia Vargas in February, 2000.

The first HBCUs were established in the North and were products of independent religious institutions or philanthropic Christian missionaries. The first two were Cheyney University (Pennsylvania), founded in 1837, and Wilberforce University (Ohio), founded in 1856. However, historically black colleges and universities cannot be examined without revisiting major legislations and court decisions that led to the birth of many and the death of a few. The First Morrill Act (also known as the National Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862) made postsecondary education accessible to a broader population of American citizens. Ten years after this act was legislated, the Freedman's Bureau was established to provide support to a small number of HBCUs. The Second Morrill Act of 1890 led to the establishment of nineteen HBCUs. Although these three legislative acts provided an atmosphere for change, it was the segregation movement in the South that provided the impetus for black higher education, particularly with the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which ultimately established by law the right to set up separate but equal schools for blacks. This decision led to the expansion and growth of historically black colleges and universities.
Historically black colleges and universities increased from one in 1837 to more than 100 in 1973. Most of these colleges were founded after the Plessyv. Ferguson decision.

According to Jacqueline Fleming, "the majority of black public colleges, then, evolved out of state desires to avoid admitting blacks to existing white institutions" (p. 5). On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that separate education for blacks in public schools was unconstitutional because separate facilities are inherently unequal. This decision, which ended de jure racial segregation in public schools, also impacted higher education, as states were required to dismantle dual systems of higher education. This required predominantly white institutions (PWIs) to open their doors to black students, who prior to this time could not attend these institutions.


was looking for a comprehensive list which would also include founding dates, but no dice. Here is a good list, however:

Historically Black Land-Grant Institutions and founding dates:

SC HBCUs and founding dates:

NC HBCUs and founding dates:

--What have been your experiences with using HBCU records to further your research? Anyone with any experiences to share?

--Any other relevant stories to share about ancestors and education?

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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