HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) have played a vital role in the history of U.S. education even though some critics attempt to marginalize their vast accomplishments. At the same time, even though some of these critics also question their relevance in 21st century America, HBCUs are as vital and necessary as ever.
When the first HBCUs were founded prior to the Civil War (1861-1865) – Cheney State University, (originally the Institute for Colored Youth which was established after Richard Humphreys (1750-1832), a Quaker philanthropist moved by the 1829 race riots in Philadelphia, PA bequeathed $10,000 (1/10 of his estate) to create a school for “the descendants of the African race”), the first HBCU, in Philadelphia in 1837, Lincoln University (originally Ashmun Institute) near Philadelphia in 1854 (by John Miller Dickey (1806-1878), a Presbyterian Minister) as the first HBCU to provide a higher education in arts and sciences for Black males, and Wilberforce, the first private HBCU at an underground railroad stop (to free fleeing slaves from the “bondage of ignorance”) in Wilberforce (founded by members of the Methodist Episcopal Church and named after 18th century abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833)), Ohio in 1856, “it was illegal to teach Blacks to read and write” since literate Blacks were viewed as “dangerous” to society.
Consequently, prior to the start of the Civil War, the Black illiteracy rate exceeded 95% with a majority of literate Blacks concentrated in the Northeast. Furthermore, due to an absence of schools to address their intellectual needs, just about every pre-Civil War era literate Black had been self-taught.
Following the Civil War, the first HBCU era (1865-1915) began when laws prohibiting Black education were rescinded. The number of HBCUs exploded even though ambivalence and outright hostility (translated into Jim Crow racial segregation laws that were enacted in 1876 and remained entrenched until 1965) remained in the defeated South.
With an overwhelming demand for education by emancipated slaves and their families (when still intact) who were barred from attending White institutions, including a vast majority in the North (until the 1950s and 1960s), HBCUs (established by churches, missionary groups, and philanthropists) embarked on perhaps the greatest educational transformation in history. Out of the previously enslaved population of greater than 4 million, per Kenneth Ng, Wealth Redistribution, Race and Southern Public Schools, 1880-1910 (Education Policy Analysis Archives 13 May 2001), “Black educational achievement was substantial.” Black literacy increased to 10% by 1880, 50% by 1910, and 70% by 1915. Considering Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) establishing the “Separate but equal” doctrine, which in reality resulted in Blacks attending dual, inferior, under funded segregated schools, and the oppressive Southern racial laws of the era, the achievement much in part due to HBCU efforts was miraculous – in Ng’s words, “an accomplishment seldom witnessed in human history.”
The astonishing rise in Black literacy was primarily due to HBCUs rather than or in conjunction with the elementary and secondary schools established under Plessy v. Ferguson. Prior to the 20th century, many HBCUs had to provide elementary and secondary education and college prep-type courses before students were able to pursue a college degree with some focused only on Black males (e.g. Morehouse College founded in Atlanta, GA in 1867, the alma mater of Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)) and others only on Black females (e.g. Spelman College founded in a church basement in Atlanta, GA in 1881 that was recently ranked #1 in a poll on “social mobility because of its impressive 77% graduation rate). HBCUs generally did not pursue sole post secondary education until after 1900. Per President George H.W. Bush in January 1991, “At a time when many schools barred their doors to black Americans, these colleges offered the best, and often the only, opportunity for a higher education.”
Following the significant advances in Black literacy, the second HBCU era (1916-1969) focused on creating a Black professional and middle class. Their efforts, though met serious obstacles. Few Blacks had the financial resources to utilize these professionals and fewer Whites were interested in their services. During this time period to ensure Blacks could realize economic benefits from their degrees, HBCUs, per Ronald Roach, Celebrating the History And Contributions of Black Colleges (Black Issues, 21 October 2004) shifted their focus from liberal arts to industrial and vocational education after spirited debates between educator, author, orator Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), (a Hampton University (Hampton, VA) graduate and past President of Tuskegee University) who believed the best opportunity for Blacks to “attain equality… was through the accumulation of power, wealth, and respect by means of hard work in practical [vocational] trades” and sociologist, author, historian W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) who believed that “equality and sense of purpose would only come if talented Blacks were allowed to study the arts and sciences” in addition to vocational trades.
Ironically, though, the successful culmination of the Civil Rights movement in 1968 that earned Blacks the right to vote, broke down the barriers of segregation and offered important protections against racial discrimination and new opportunities, actually threatened HBCUs leading to their third era (one of threats to their viability and even survival, despite government aid through Title III of the Higher Education Act of 1965) as enrollment as a percentage of Blacks plunged. From 1965-1969 approximately 80%-99% of Blacks were enrolled in HBCUs. From 1970-2010 less than 10% of Blacks are enrolled in HBCUs with many taking advantage of desegregated Public and Private Institutions, Community Colleges, and two-year institutions.
This era of decline, financial hardship (especially among non-State supported institutions), and transition in which some became (e.g. West Virginia State University) or are becoming majority White institutions, not surprisingly, brought about debates about the relevance and even continued need for HBCUs, their mission and focus and even their relevance in 21st Century America. The fact though remains – HBCUs are as necessary and relevant as ever with a continued critical role to ensure, because it is imperative that, in the words of U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) as recounted in Dr. E. Lee Lassiter’s, Coppin’s HBCU Role Chosen for a National Salute article dated September 1, 2006, “all our children have a chance to succeed, and in making sure they have the 21st century skills and… thinking for 21st century jobs.”
With every demographic group with the exception of Whites and Asians regressing in terms of generational academic achievement, it is essential that HBCUs focus on minority education. Per John Silvanus Wilson, Jr., America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the Third Transformation (The Presidency. The American Council of Education. Winter 2010) generational academic achievement among all races barely improved with 35.5% of all individuals 25-29 gaining a college degree vs. 34.9% of all persons 30 and older (propelled much in part to Asians – 66.3% of 25-29 year-olds vs. 54.5% of 30+ year-olds and Whites – 41.8% of 25-29 year-olds vs. 38.0% of 30+ year-olds). The numbers ranged from disappointing to dismal when it came to Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians. Blacks suffered the least erosion with 24.3% of 25-29 year-olds earning a college degree vs. 24.6% of the 30+ age group. 16.8% of Hispanics 25-29 years-old earned a college degree vs. 18.1% of those 30+ and only 16.3% of American Indians (a target group educated by HBCUs led by Hampton University’s establishment of a formal educational program geared towards their needs in 1878) in the 25-29 age bracket earned a college degree vs. the 21.7% figure for those 30 and older.
Second, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, more than 80% of Blacks who earned degrees in dentistry and medicine attended two HBCUs (Howard University, Washington, D.C. and Meharry Medical College, Nashville, TN) specializing in these fields. Presently both schools account for 19.7% of all medical and dentistry degrees awarded to Black students. In addition, HBCUs have accounted for training of 75% of Black officers in the U.S. Armed Forces, 75% of Blacks with PhDs, 80% of Blacks holding federal judgeship positions, and 50% of Black faculty members teaching at traditionally White institutions.
Third, HBCUs continue to be at the forefront of Black students earning degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), which is especially critical since degrees in STEM fields (which are essential if the United States is to remain competitive in a global, technology-driven economy), have declined significantly over the last 10 years (by as much as 22%-26% for students receiving bachelor degrees in computer science and math) with 70% of growth of 18-24 year-olds pursuing these fields comprised of minority students (including a 19% increase attributed to Black Americans of that age group) as stated in Fueling Education Reform: Historically Black Colleges Are Meeting a National Science Imperative by Steve Suitts (Southern Education Foundation, Atlanta, GA, July 3, 2003), and rank high with regard to students who pursue graduate and post-doctoral training. With this in mind, an era of revival for HBCUs is likely contingent upon their emphasis on STEM subjects.
Additional advantages offered are smaller class size than available at traditional universities (providing a more personalized experience), community service opportunities (e.g. mentoring elementary, middle school, and high school students and assisting charitable organizations) that enrich both students and community members, and opportunities for graduate school and human resources recruiters searching for, in the words of Jeff McGuire, The Historical Black College & University: Choosing the right historic black college for you (College View, 18 December 2009), “diversity and talent they are unable to find elsewhere.”
A final important reason that HBCUs retain their critical roles is their positive atmosphere and deeper focus on African-American and minority cultural and historical contributions and the fact that they provide minorities (many of whom experienced discrimination or inequality during some part of their lives, including those born in the post Civil Rights era including the 1980s and 1990s) with greater self-esteem because of the wide-range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds they come from and through the availability of support and remediation/retention networks when they experience academic challenges. In the words of Cedar Lawrence, a recruiter at Fort Valley State University (Fort Valley, GA) HBCUs provide an atmosphere where they can be “very open to discussing the issues facing people of color… solutions to make things better” in a family atmosphere without worrying about “what people think of race” and/or other stereotypes.
In conclusion, HBCUs are relevant and necessary in 21st Century America. With their course offerings in the STEM fields, smaller class size, remedial/retention/support networks, diversity and openness, HBCUs are critical not only for urban America but every community of today’s and tomorrow’s knowledge-based technological society. HBCUs are essential to ensure equal opportunity and a bright future for students of all races especially since their continued efforts and contributions proactively address socioeconomic obstacles that could discourage and intellectually and ultimately psychologically and economically set back entire races. The rich, past history of HBCUs clearly demonstrates that they remain a potent equalizer to ensure each dream, regardless of economic class and race, have at a minimum, a realistic possibility of being achieved.
 Lakisha Heard. Illiteracy among African Americans. 18 December 2009. http://www.oppapers.com/essays/African-American-Literacy/261112
 The History of Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Tradition rich in history. College View. 18 December 2009. [http://www.collegeview.com/articles/CV/hbcu/hbcu_history.html]