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Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The Development of HBCUs, Academic and Social Experiences at HBCUs, Conclusion

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are institutions that were established prior to 1964 with the mission to educate black Americans. Perhaps one of the greatest struggles faced by blacks in the United States has been the struggle to be educated. This struggle has been guided by the philosophies of black scholars who believed that without struggle there was no progress; black revolutionists who believed that education was the passport to the future; and black clergy who sermonized that without vision the people would perish. Education is now, and always has been, a vital weapon in the black arsenal. Essentially, black Americans used education as their primary source of ammunition in the fight against a segregated society, racism, illiteracy, and poverty. The steadfast desire of the black population to be educated influenced the development of HBCUs, and HBCUs have likewise contributed much to the advancement of the black population.

The Development of HBCUs

Since the establishment of the first HBCU, there has been a recurrent debate over the role of these institutions within the larger framework of higher education. During the years of strict and legal racial segregation in the United States, HBCUs served as "islands of hope" where blacks could learn to read and write without the fear of being retaliated against. The primary purpose of HBCUs was to educate black Americans, which they did almost exclusively from 1865 to the 1950s. The overwhelming majority of HBCUs opened after 1865 in response to the need to have institutions to educate newly freed slaves and to avoid admitting those newly freed slaves into the existing white institutions.

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.

Interestingly enough, the effects of a decision made in the mid-twentieth century still linger in higher education in the early twenty-first century, for nowhere are the repercussions from the Brown decision more visible than in HBCUs. The dismantling of dual systems in higher education has resulted in mergers and closures of HBCUs because opponents of these institutions view them as segregated colleges and universities. This has led to a series of discussions, debates, and court rulings that underscore the fact that there not enough research has been done on this segment of higher education.

Academic and Social Experiences at HBCUs

The literature on higher education is scant in the area of HBCUs. These institutions did not become the subject of research studies until the early 1970s. However, researchers have learned a considerable amount about the academic and social experiences of students who attend HBCUs. In 1992, Walter Allen reported that black students who attend HBCUs have better academic performance, greater social involvement, and higher occupational aspirations than black students who attend PWIs. On black campuses students emphasize feelings of engagement, extensive support, acceptance, encouragement, and connection. Allen also found that HBCUs communicate to black students that it is safe to take the risks associated with intellectual growth and development.

Proponents of HBCUs argue that they have served black students with considerable effectiveness. Researchers contend that HBCUs provide assets for black students that are unavailable and unattainable in white institutions. Socially, Donald Smith found that they provide an accepting environment with emotional support. He also found that they serve as repositories for the black heritage. The environment at HBCUs is one of acceptance of students for who they are, and students do not experience social isolation, but rather integration into campus life and extracurricular offerings. HBCUs also foster healthy social relationships, and students form positive relationships with faculty members as well as their peers. It is not uncommon to find formal and informal mentoring relationships developing in this environment. In addition, HBCUs foster ethnic pride and self-esteem.

Academically, HBCUs offer programs designed to meet the unique needs of black students and the black community, and they educate many students with learning deficiencies. Although the facilities are generally modest and resources are limited, numerous studies indicate that HBCUs have done an outstanding job at educating their clientele. For an extensive period in American history, HBCUs were solely responsible for educating and preparing blacks to live as free people in the South. HBCUs accepted this responsibility and educated many black Americans with very little in the way of financial resources. The academic gains for black students attending HBCUs are high when compared to their counterparts at predominantly white schools. This is due in part to the nurturing campus environment and positive faculty relationships that motivate students to do well academically.

Historically black colleges and universities have been crucial in the development of black professionals. For more than 160 years, these institutions have educated a population that has lived under severe legal, education, economic, political, and social restrictions. Early HBCUs were established to train teachers, preachers, and other community members to remedy the despairs of slavery that scarred African Americans. First and foremost, HBCUs opened the door of educational opportunity for many blacks who were once legally denied an education. Secondly, they provided educational access to those who were educationally underprepared to enter predominantly white institutions. By 1950, HBCUs were responsible for serving 90 percent of black students in higher education. Moreover, HBCUs had produced 75 percent of all black Ph.D.'s, 75 percent of all black army officers, 80 percent of all black federal judges, and 85 percent of all black physicians. In 2001, HBCUs served 14 percent of all black students enrolled in college, but were annually responsible for 26 percent of black baccalaureate degrees.


It has been stated that HBCUs have a unique chapter in the history of American postsecondary education. Despite the tremendous obstacles that these institutions faced, there are 104 HBCUs as of 2002–approximately 3 percent of U.S. higher education institutions. While there was a period where HBCUs had fallen from the research literature, current research scholars have developed a renewed interest in these institutions. This renewed interest partly stems from the fact that these institutions still play a vital role in American higher education. While black students in the early twenty-first century can choose to attend any type of institution, many are electing to attend an HBCU. While these colleges and universities achieve tremendous success, it is important to further investigate the unique identity and the diversity they bring to higher education. In 2001, Coaxum called for a separate classification of HBCUs, on in which the diversity of these institutions could be understood within the context of their institutional peers.


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