The unsung history of HBCUs and their distinguished alumni

Since their founding in the 1800s, historically Black colleges and universities have had a significant role — from the pre-Civil War era through Reconstruction and into the modern era.

Spelman College graduates move their tassels from right to left after their degrees are conferred on May 16, 2021 at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia.  Founded April 11, 1881 to educate Black women, Spelman is the top-rated historically black college in the United States.
Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon, National Geographic

President Joe Biden sent heads spinning in 2020 when he selected California Senator Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate.

“Today is an extraordinary moment in the history of America and of Howard University,” wrote Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick, on the day of Biden’s announcement. “As Senator Harris embarks upon this new chapter in her life, and in our country’s history, she is poised to break two glass ceilings in our society with one fell swoop of her Howard hammer!”

The election generated needed energy for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), a group of higher education institutions that include Harris’s alma mater Howard University.

(Why historically Black colleges are enjoying a renaissance)

Now vice president of the United States, Harris is part of a long tradition of distinguished HBCU alumni. Although they only make up three percent of the nation’s four-year-colleges, the 101 institutions of higher education have been credited with educating more than 50 percent of the nation’s Black doctors and dentists until the 1960s.

The list of individual achievements is endless. Alabama State University graduate Fred Gray is a legal legend who represented Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., himself a Morehouse College graduate. David Satcher, another Morehouse alumnus, worked his way up to become U.S. Surgeon General in 1968. Levi Watkins, Jr. broke the color line at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and went on to be a pioneer in cardiac surgery. All four of the math and computer scientists portrayed in the movie Hidden Figures were HBCU graduates. So was actress Taraji Henson, who starred in the film, author Alice Walker, filmmaker Spike Lee, and musician Lionel Richie.

Yet HBCUs have been chronically misunderstood and under financed since their founding in the 1800s. Although these institutions are still the higher education link for most poor and low-income Blacks, federal and state support has gotten shakier in the past century. And private contributions have become tougher to secure.

“You’ve got a really mixed bag,” says Frank G. Pogue, Jr., who spent 50 years in higher education administration, including helping run the State University of New York System. “Some are thriving. Some are hanging. Some are seriously weak and on life support.”

Harris’s vice presidency doesn’t translate to a gold rush for HBCUs, but it does give them a firm foot in the door of rooms in Washington where billions of tax dollars are spent daily. Meanwhile, recent high-profile donations and a resurgence in enrollment gives some observers hope for the future of these imperiled institutions.

The origins of HBCUs

HBCUs emerged as a vital educational niche before the Civil War. In the South, antebellum “slave codes” prohibited the education of the millions of enslaved African people who were considered property, not citizens, at the time.

So runaways and freedmen seeking an education had to travel north. As part of their efforts to expand comprehension of English, Quakers and religious missionaries established one-room schoolhouses to educate freed Blacks. Cheyney University of Pennsylvania was the first to be founded in 1837, followed by Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Wilberforce University in Ohio.

As the Civil War began in the 1860s, these schools also drew in poor immigrant whites and displaced Native Americans, all seeking to master the English language as a route to success in the United States.

(Meet trailblazers From Atlanta's historically Black colleges.)

In 1862, that momentum was embraced by Representative Justin Smith Morrill, a former Vermont shopkeeper who had dropped out of school upon realizing his family could not pay for him to go to college. Morrill championed the Morrill Land Grant College Act, a piece of door-opening legislation giving states federal property—30,000 acres for each congressional district—plus funding to establish state-controlled colleges.

The Morrill Act set the stage for decades of growth in educational institutes for ordinary income whites. The legislation empowered new states in the West to establish colleges for working farmers and the poor who could not afford private school educations.

Mary Peake, an educated free Black woman and abolitionist from Northern Virginia, taught the “contrabands” in makeshift shacks before moving to an abandoned cottage. When Butler retired in 1863, one of his final official acts was to use federal government funds to pay for a school in the Hampton area that could seat 600 students.

By the end of the decade, a flurry of post-Civil War initiatives resulted in the establishment of a trade school on the adjacent property—a school that would become today’s Hampton University.

Post-Civil War growth

As the Civil War drew to a close in 1864 and the federally controlled Reconstruction period began to “reunite” the states, there was no plan for educating the estimated four million suddenly freed enslaved people who had worked on Southern plantations. The government stepped in again.

In March 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau—with an ambitious agenda and no budget. Run by Union generals, the Freedmen’s Bureau was charged with integrating Black Southerners into society.

The agency set up makeshift schools to educate the freed Black Americans. In September 1865, three months after the war officially ended, Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) was founded with assistance from the Freedmen’s Bureau. It was soon followed by the Fisk Free Colored School in Nashville, Tennessee in 1866.

The Freedmen’s Bureau had its greatest symbolic impact with the establishment of Howard University in Washington, D.C. Started as a seminary in 1867, the institution quickly expanded its liberal arts mission. By the following year, Howard had opened Freedmen’s Hospital, giving students who wanted to practice medicine a training ground not available anywhere else in the country.

Southern states, however, remained determined to prevent Blacks from getting an education. During Reconstruction—and in the years after it ended in 1876—they enacted a flurry of state and local laws known as “Black codes” that were designed to restrict Black people from owning property and moving freely through public spaces. The violent and racist Ku Klux Klan reinforced those laws.

Morrill was once again on the case. The Morrill Act of 1890, commonly referred to as the Second Morrill Act, established a land-grant system that forced states that banned Blacks from their public institutions of higher education to designate a separate institution for people of color. That fueled the launch of 17 colleges for Blacks, more recently expanded to 19.

Debating segregation       

As educational opportunities for freed slaves grew, so did differing schools of thought among emerging Black leaders on how to secure economic and educational advancement. One of the most divisive education debates of the last century—often called the “Great Debate”—took place between distinguished academics Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.

One of Hampton University’s earliest students, Washington was born a slave in Virginia and moved to West Virginia after emancipation. In 1872, Washington reportedly walked 500 miles to Hampton, arriving with 50 cents in his pocket. The school enrolled him anyway, allowing him to earn his tuition by working as a janitor. 

By contrast, DuBois was a Massachusetts-born, Harvard-trained educator who taught at Wilberforce University and Atlanta University. DuBois asserted the best course for the future was to push for civil rights and a liberal arts education for the “talented tenth” of Black citizens who could then lead their communities.

In the 1950s, the unresolved issue of racial segregation in schools was pushed front and center when the U.S. Supreme Court declared in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision that the separate-but-equal doctrine that had propped up segregation was unconstitutional.

Although most Southern states would ignore and contest the ruling, civil rights advocates saw it as an opportunity to continue pushing the envelope on racial disparities in higher education. In 1962, James Meredith became the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi in the face of fierce protest from whites who declared integration was tantamount to disruption of society. 

Effects of desegregation

The push toward desegregation would have unforeseen consequences for HBCUs. Bluefield State College, founded in 1895 to provide higher education to children of Black coal miners in West Virginia, quickly began to desegregate in the 1960s—starting with quiet removal of its Black administrators. By the late 1990s, Bluefield State would have a Black enrollment of under 10 percent. 

HBCUs also remained underfunded compared to white institutions of higher education. In 1970, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund took on the federal government, arguing that it had granted funds to 10 states with racially segregated educational systems. The NAACP also provided evidence that state and federal agencies had endorsed and condoned unequal funding, enrollment, staffing, salary, infrastructure, curriculum development, and more.

The courts agreed. In response to the ruling, the federal government formally acknowledged the unique role of HBCUs and invested millions of dollars to upgrade their facilities.

The ruling fueled the dismantling of the country’s dual educational systems. The federal government required states to submit desegregation plans—while also requiring HBCUs to expand their non-minority enrollment. Whether due to pressure from the courts or public opinion, most states eventually complied. (Some, however, are still mired in legal controversy.)

Meanwhile, a movement to make it easier to afford education opened new options for Black students. Community and junior colleges proliferated across the nation and, in 1972, Claiborne Pell, a low-profile senator from Rhode Island, convinced a bipartisan group of colleagues to establish a program giving nominal amounts of money—called Pell Grants—to students based on their level of need.

The community college boom and aggressive recruitment of Blacks to attend historically white colleges and universities began steadily draining HBCUs of their once-captive audience of prospective students, teachers, and administrators.

The challenges facing HBCUs today have multiplied—and the clock may be ticking to solve them.

The competition for students in higher education has only gained in intensity as the potential student pool shrinks and private online educators enter the competitive arena.

(Photos highlight the unique traditions of historically Black colleges.)

The nation’s economic dive late in the early 2000s caused belt tightening at HBCUs and cost dozens of HBCU presidents their jobs as governing boards demanded quick financial rebounds. In this rapidly changing socio-economic environment, many high school counselors began actively steering students to the mushrooming collection of lower-cost public colleges.

This confluence of developments spelled the demise of more than a handful of HBCUs, mostly private religious-based institutions including Bishop College in Texas, Knoxville College in Tennessee, and St. Paul College in Virginia. Many public colleges were bailed out by their state governments.

Today, the tangible value of HBCUs is next to nothing when compared with Ivy League institutions. Harvard University possesses more than $30 billion in its endowment and its alumni have deep pockets and a culture of giving. Harvard does not rely on student aid to get its students through each year.

Howard University, by contrast, possesses a $740 million endowment and relies on a Congressionally mandated line-item appropriation, which in 2020 reached $240 million. Most HBCUs have even smaller endowments of $50 million dollars or less and rely on tuition to enroll as much as 90 percent of their students.

Empirical data provided by several alumni groups further indicates that alumni giving across the board at HBCUs is approximately 15 percent.

“A lot of HBCU alumni are first-generation college students and don’t come from family and generational wealth,” says Vita Pickrum, vice president of institutional development at Delaware State University, the state’s historically Black land-grant college.

With those challenges looming on the horizon, Capitol Hill has increasingly questioned whether HBCUs are still a necessity.

A hopeful future?

After the civil unrest across the nation in 2020, sparked by deadly police shootings in a number of cities, the talk of more HBCUs joining the ranks of America’s dying institutions quickly vanished.

“We are beyond that debate now,” says California-based consultant Hugh C. Burroughs, who has worked for several philanthropists including the John Hay Whitney Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. “These institutions are important pillars and foundation for equality and racial justice.”

He argues that the public outcry for political civility and protesting police misconduct signals a “new normal” with respect to race relations. “We’ve got to get this race thing right,” he says. “I really think the door is open.”

In September 2020, Congress stepped in with an emergency half billion-dollar bailout to revive the institutions from near financial collapse during the pandemic, which disproportionately hit poor and minority communities. And that aid was more than matched a few months later with a surprising gesture of private support.

In December 2020, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott announced plans to distribute $5 billion dollars to hundreds of organizations—including HBCUs. The institutions receiving gifts ranged from urban Howard University, which got $40 million, to rural Prairie View A&M University in Texas, which received $50 million.

Scott—who became the world’s richest woman after her divorce from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos—gave the money upfront with no strings attached. This bold move diverted sharply from a pattern of corporate giving in which donors tie conditions to their support, typically earmarking it for business, science, and math while liberal arts get cut.

Now, HBCUs are experiencing a renaissance of sorts. In a report based on interviewed with dozens of students, guidance counselors, and college officials, the New York Times found that they “are increasingly becoming the first choice” for a new generation of promising young people who have come to see the historical value of HBCUs.

Sprinkled throughout the true stories and lore of HBCU history are tales of how these institutions blended their rigid academic standards with a compassion for students. Like Hampton with Booker T. Washington, they created practices of financial flexibility that allowed poor students to enroll and pay their tuition and fees as they could.

“HBCUs create a truly nurturing environment that helps students understand how to compete in the global society,” says Alabama State University President Quinton Ross, a second-generation graduate of the school, where 75 percent of students are Pell Grant-eligible.

Pickrum of Delaware State agrees. “The time has come for when HBCUs are recognized for what they have done.”

Lynsey Weatherspoon’s work has been exhibited at The African American Museum in Philadelphia and Photoville NYC. Her affiliations include Diversify Photo, Authority Collective, and Women Photograph. Lynsey is available for assignments and projects nationally and internationally through both stills and video. She also develops curriculum for high schools and colleges lectures, conferences and is available for virtual and in-person speaking engagements.

Nina Robinson’s photography unites personal, documentary, and fine art styles. Brooklyn-based photographer Radcliffe “Ruddy” Roye uses portraiture and photojournalism to tell real stories of real people, especially fellow Jamaicans. 

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