There are more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities (HCBU) in the United States. These schools have evolved since their beginning in 1837 when they primarily existed to teach freed slaves to read and write. Today, historically Black colleges and universities offer African American students a place to earn a sense of identity, heritage and community.
Before the Civil War the majority of Blacks in the United States were enslaved. While a few free Blacks in the north attended primarily White colleges before the war, this was a rare and almost existent occurrence in the slave states of the South. Public policy in the South prohibited the education of blacks. In response to this, a few institutions of higher education for Blacks were created. The earliest was Cheyney University in Pennsylvania (1837). It was founded as the Institute for Colored Youth and for most of its early history was for elementary and high school level instruction.
While the years between the Civil War and World War I saw tremendous growth and support for White colleges, African American higher education took a different path. During this time, the majority of Black students were enrolled in private colleges. These school were primarily established and maintained by northern religious mission societies African American religious gifts also established a significant number. Since there was virtually no public education for Blacks in the south, they often started with elementary and high school level instruction. Often they did not offer college-level courses until their students were prepared for them, sometimes years later.
Private education was essential to higher education for African Americans because various states basically excluded Blacks from publicly supported higher education. Of the 17 Southern states that mandated racially segregated education during the Jim Crow era, 14 refused to establish land-grant colleges for African American students until forced to do so by Congress in 1890. The institutions were established in name only. Not one met the land-grant requirement to teach agriculture, mechanical arts and liberal education on a collegiate level.
A Supreme Court decision in 1938 forced Southern state governments to concede more resources for the improvement of African American higher education. The founding of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) in 1944 enlisted support for Black colleges and universities. Corporate philanthropy and the donations of thousands of individuals continue to support their mission to this day. During this time, those attending black colleges were to have been accorded equal education, but in a separate environment. In actuality, the black colleges were consistently deprived of equal educational resources. When it appeared that the courts would rule against this blatant unconstitutional inequality, states made a desperate attempt to make black colleges equal, not to ensure equality, but to keep blacks out of white universities.
During the 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) turned its attention from educational equality to school desegregation. The result was the Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954) desegregation decisions, although these decisions had little direct effect on Black colleges. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 was an impetus for change. 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.
In 1992 the Supreme Court ruled that patterns of racial segregation still remained in Mississippi¹s public university system, nearly 40 years after Brown v. Board of Education The slow elimination of segregation has in general had mixed blessings for Black colleges and universities. White institutions have begun to draw Black students and support away from the traditional Black schools. Black colleges today increasingly have to compete with other institutions for prize pupils. Prospective students and the schools are struggling with how to weigh the unique traditions and culture that black colleges offer against the financial resources and elite rankings of white campuses.
It is a misconception that historically black colleges are all black. This is not so. Although most black colleges have a majority of black students, not all do. Virtually all of them have non-black students. Approximately 17-18% of the students in black colleges are white and another 13% are of another race besides White or African American. Not all faculty at a black college are black. A third or more of most black college faculty members are non-black. In fact, the historically black colleges have never been segregated and have always been open to whites when the law allowed. It must be noted that “historically black” is different from “predominantly black”. In most predominantly black colleges, more than 50 percent of the students are black.
Today, Historically Black colleges are experiencing first-hand the problems found in higher education. Private colleges and universities did not build up a solid financial base. Raising money remains the major challenge for a Black college president or chancellor. Private Black colleges are struggling to keep their funding sources viable and to fight off financial starvation in an increasingly competitive environment. Public Black colleges are fighting to obtain their fair share of government support. In some cases, financial problems are leading to accreditation questions. The perception that because historically black colleges may have less financial resources, that the academic experience isn’t as rich or the quality of education will not be as high quality is just not true.
Graduation rates have been a challenge for black colleges. Many students who attend a Black college come from low-income families. These students are at risk of dropping out simply because they do not have the money to continue. Often, the students black colleges enroll may not have had the opportunity to attend college otherwise. Historically Black colleges are often “engines of social mobility,” for minority students. They provide students not with just an education, but with the opportunity to pursue their full potential.
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