members of a fraternity club on stage as one leading man plays the saxophone

Why Historically Black Colleges Are Enjoying a Renaissance

As racial tensions escalate, campuses are seeing a surge in enrollment and a new brand of African-American activism.

Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity alumni at Clark Atlanta University welcome new members (left) of the oldest Greek-lettered organization for African Americans, which counts Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr., in its ranks.
Photograph by Nina Robinson
This story is part of The Race Issue, a special issue of National Geographic that explores how race defines, separates, and unites us.

It’s the time of year when spring begins to graze the nascent stages of summer. The aroma from food trucks permeates the air while vendors encircle the amphitheater. Students meander among tables selling T-shirts emblazoned with phrases like “Respect This Melanin,” posters of activists such as Muhammad Ali and Angela Davis, and displays of recycled earth-tone jewelry.

At the end of nearly every week, students from Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University—adjacent historically black colleges that are part of the Atlanta University Center (AUC)—gather on Spelman’s campus in southwest Atlanta to inaugurate the weekend at the aptly named Market Friday. Stories of these events were a fixture around the dinner table in my home. My mother, sister, aunt, and wife all attended Spelman. My father and his brother went to Morehouse. Still, it’s one thing to hear about such an event, quite another to experience it for yourself.

This is the last Market Friday of the semester, the final one ever for graduating seniors. Market Fridays give students an opportunity to convene beyond classrooms and dormitories, and allow fraternities and sororities to show off choreographed dance and step routines, performances they’ve often spent months practicing. These organizations’ history is tied to public service and advocacy, and their social communities are the bedrock upon which that work is done.

The groups take the stage—sometimes separately, sometimes together—and move their bodies in an astonishing display of fervor and synchronization. Their movements are imbued with equal parts joy and vehemence as they slide their feet in concert across the brick surface.

As I sit among the students, the thump of their favorite hip-hop tracks disseminates across the campus and intermingles with boisterous laughter—the kind of laughter that only a Friday afternoon with friends can bring.

This moment is one of celebration, but it’s also true that many of these students’ lives have been animated by a sense of civic and political urgency following a stream of racist incidents on predominantly white college campuses, several years in which footage of police killings of unarmed black men and women has felt omnipresent, and the election of a president whose actions have encouraged racial animus. Even before he took office, Donald Trump repeatedly tried to raise doubts about the legitimacy of the African-American president these students grew up with, by questioning whether Barack Obama had been born in the United States.

For many African Americans and others, the cascade of events has been astonishing to observe and exhausting to be a part of, which is why watching a group of young, black college students dance and step and laugh to the music of their choosing, on their own terms, without concern for anyone but themselves, is a small but welcome respite.

The irony of students experiencing this profound joy is that the very existence of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) is inextricably linked to a history of enslavement and Reconstruction. Few white colleges were willing to accept black students after the Civil War ended in 1865. The primary way black students could receive higher education was to set up their own institutions.

Today students at Morehouse and Spelman are seen by many as exemplars of the black community, the best and brightest, who have chosen these schools despite having opportunities to go to other prestigious institutions that previous generations of black Americans could never have dreamed of attending.

This is not an accident. Many black students have pivoted to HBCUs recently out of concern that their comfort, safety, and humanity are under siege. Enrollment at many HBCUs, which surged in 2016 and 2017, cannot be disentangled from students’ rising concerns about a world that seems to consistently devalue and dehumanize them. This precariousness has led to a political awakening at institutions with long traditions of activism.

Morehouse was originally founded in Augusta, Georgia, as the Augusta Theological Institute in 1867, one of several black colleges established that year. It was in the early days of a nation that was trying to heal and reinvent itself, a country moving toward the daunting project of creating a multiracial democracy only a couple of years after it ended the enslavement of more than four million of its black citizens.

The current campus is on one of the sites where Gen. William T. Sherman and his soldiers battled Confederate forces in the Atlanta siege of 1864. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., is among the all-male school’s esteemed alumni.

Spelman began in a church basement in 1881 as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, started by two teachers from Massachusetts, Harriet E. Giles and Sophia B. Packard, who sought to create a school for black women after Reconstruction. Spelman has the highest graduation rate of the nation’s more than a hundred historically black colleges, and is among the top liberal arts schools in the country. The school was one of only a handful of U.S. colleges designated by the National Science Foundation and NASA as Model Institutions for Excellence to encourage undergraduate science and mathematics education. Its alumnae include Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Alice Walker and civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund.

I meet Avery Jackson outside the food court on Morehouse’s campus. Jackson is tall and slender with dark brown skin and eyebrows that arch at their edges so as to give an impression of subtle yet unabated inquiry. The senior sociology major is calm and thoughtful when speaking, merging discernment with a steady stream of consciousness and processing ideas while saying them out loud. The hair on either side of Jackson’s head is closely shaved, leaving a tangle of short, black dreadlocks on top. Jackson’s left nostril is pierced with a small silver ring, and a constellation of black-ink tattoos traveling up the left arm. Jackson is wearing jeans and a tie-dyed green shirt with the words “KNOW THY SELF,” appropriate for a young adult who has spent their time at Morehouse trying to make sense of who they are.

Jackson grew up in Des Moines, Iowa with parents who worked to ensure that the prevailing whiteness of the schools there didn’t shape the value system of their four children. “My mom wants us to feel like the standard, or the norm, instead of feeling as if we were not in the right place,” Jackson says.

In high school Jackson was a member of the NAACP youth council but became disillusioned after the group’s response to the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed black boy who was killed in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer as he walked home from picking up snacks at a convenience store. Jackson had been at a national NAACP conference not far away, in Orlando. After the shooting, some of the group’s leaders, Jackson says, tried to prevent young members from leaving the conference’s hotel to protest, suggesting they shouldn’t go out into the street. “That was… one of the big, big, big, shifting moments for me,” Jackson says. Though initially remaining involved with the NAACP at Morehouse, Jackson ultimately left the group in search of more aggressive activism. Jackson was one of the students who began an organization they call AUC Shut It Down, which had a more radical approach to challenging systemic racism. The group protested when Hillary Clinton went to Morehouse in 2015 during her presidential campaign because they didn’t believe Clinton would adequately represent their political interests, and they were particularly concerned that someone who once implied that gangs of black youths were “superpredators” was vying to become president of the United States.

The protest led longtime civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis, whose district includes the AUC schools, to plead with the students to let Clinton speak. AUC Shut It Down—like many groups of young activists that arose after the 2014 killing of another unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri—had an intersectional framework: It aimed to address issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation together, rather than separately.

Historically black colleges and universities may not be perceived as diverse because the majority of students are part of the African diaspora, but the campuses abound with students of different social backgrounds, contrasting political dispositions, and varying notions of what progress and activism look like.

There are students such as Imani Dixon, a Spelman senior when I first meet her, from Charlotte, North Carolina. Dixon sits across from me in a navy blue blazer and white blouse, her natural, curly hair reaching her shoulders. Growing up, Dixon attended a mixed-race school but was one of few black students in her advanced classes. Most top students from her high school went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill or North Carolina State in Raleigh, but Dixon realized she wanted to be in a place that reminded her every day that black people, when given the opportunities and the resources, could thrive. “So that’s ultimately why I chose Spelman.”

Dixon’s mother, Kendra Johnson, said that her daughter “immediately had this incredible zeal for what she felt like the school stood for and what it would mean to her and her development as a young African-American woman.”

If she’d chosen an in-state school, Dixon—one of the top students in her high school—would likely have had to pay very little to go to college. Spelman, on the other hand, didn’t provide much tuition assistance, but Johnson was determined to find the money for her daughter to enroll, taking out loans in her name rather than Dixon’s. “It was important enough for her to attend this school,” she says. Spelman “was where I believed she should be.”

Dixon says that at Spelman, for the first time in her life she could have conversations about the history of black feminism while listening to the newest Drake song. “I wanted to have those conversations, stimulating conversations”—she shimmies her shoulders and laughs—“but still turn up at the same time,” she says, referring to being able to party with friends.

Being at a school with a deep commitment to black history at a time of such profound racialized social tumult made Dixon more politically conscious and engaged. Classes such as African Diaspora and the World—a required course at Spelman, in which class discussions put police brutality, the criminal justice system, and black poverty in historical context—changed her outlook in a way that her friends back home couldn’t always understand.

“They think I’m like this hippie now,” she says, “because I’m talking about intersectionality and, you know, changing the black narrative, and how we’re an oppressed group of people, and feminism and how it’s different from womanism, and patriarchal inequalities.”

Unlike Jackson, Dixon committed herself to changing things from within existing institutions. She was elected president of Spelman’s Student Government Association, and she implemented initiatives that reflected her political awakening. She worked with local organizations to fight gentrification in neighborhoods near campus, pushed for more services for sexual assault victims, promoted voter education and registration drives, and brought attention to how black women often are overlooked in the national conversation about police violence. Now Dixon has a job in marketing in New York and hopes to continue working on social justice matters.

Spelman was founded with a mission to serve black women. But evolving definitions of gender have pushed the school, and many other single-sex schools across the country, to reconsider whom they’re serving while staying true to their values. Some students and alumnae have been more willing to accommodate increasingly blurred gender lines, but others worry that it risks compromising the school’s tradition. After months of debate that considered years of research as well as student, alumnae, and administrative input, Spelman announced last September that it would admit people who self-identify as women and have been living as such at the time of their application, and would allow students who transition from women to men during their time at Spelman to remain and graduate.

Janae’ Sumter, a graduating senior from New Orleans, says that Spelman has “definitely evolved” on LGBTQ issues. When I meet Sumter, she’s wearing a tattered pink cap that sits loosely and diagonally on her head. Thick, tightly coiled red dreadlocks fall down to her shoulders, and a large pair of clear, round glasses sits on the bridge of her nose. An artist and community organizer, Sumter had been co-president of Afrekete, an LGBTQ organization on campus.

“I remember my first year,” she says. “We have something called Pride Week and do chalking [writing words of support on sidewalks] and celebration, and we had … a few groups of students [who] wrote Scriptures underneath it.” The implication was that being homosexual runs counter to Christianity, a notion Sumter rejects.

Sumter and her friends have pushed the school to be more responsive: “People are coming around. People are trying to understand.”

Sumter says she’s also a survivor of sexual assault, an increasingly urgent issue at Spelman and other campuses across the country. Through her art and her activism, she has tried to bring this topic to light. During Afrekete’s “Coming Out Monologues,” Sumter opened up about her personal journey. “That was the first time I’ve ever shared my story to the public or with myself. I think from there I realized how freeing that was.” The evolution of Sumter’s politics related to race and gender has taken place alongside the evolution of her own sense of self. “I love how I love myself. Coming in, I didn’t. I didn’t know how to love myself. I didn’t know what that meant. I learned how to be brave in all spaces.”

Late last year, months after I spoke with Sumter, the #MeToo campaign swept across the nation, creating a cultural reckoning around sexual assault and harassment in politics, media, and entertainment. Academic institutions were not immune. Flyers circulated at Spelman and Morehouse criticizing the colleges’ response to sexual assault, and a damning graffiti message appeared on the side of Morehouse’s chapel: “Practice What You Preach Morehouse + End Rape Culture.”

Spelman president Mary Schmidt Campbell admits that Morehouse and Spelman must do a better job on behalf of survivors but also believes that the students bringing attention to sexual assault are part of a long tradition of feminist activism that focuses on race and gender.

“There were always those willing to disrupt the way things were at Spelman on their way to disrupting the way things are in the culture at large,” she says. “This is not a new set of activities for Spelman College. Spelman women have been on the forefront of social activism for change for many generations.”

Activism at Spelman and Morehouse also has permeated spaces where it previously didn’t exist. Just as some of the iconography of events like Market Friday illuminates a renewed feeling of racial pride, other events on campus reaffirm a solidarity that can be found only at HBCUs.

The annual Miss Maroon and White pageant, sponsored by Morehouse, sees women from Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University take part in competitions meant to showcase their beauty, sense of social responsibility, and intellectual dexterity. Watching the pageant is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. In many ways it’s an antiquated exhibit of patriarchy that perpetuates the sort of gender norms that should prompt a larger conversation about sexual misconduct. And yet the show has taken on new vigor, in part as a political performance.

Outside the pageant, a photograph features the five contestants, steel-faced and adorned with black berets, an homage to the hats worn by Black Panther Party members of the 1960s and ’70s—a group whose political sensibilities veered away from nonviolence and toward radical self-defense against police brutality and state violence.

The lights dim, and students—many in gas masks—run down the aisles of the theater, jumping onto the stage before beginning a forceful and compelling dance number. The contestants, wearing black leather jackets, make their way to the stage to the Michael Jackson song “They Don’t Care About Us.” “Beat me, hate me. You can never break me,” the lyrics go. “Will me, thrill me. You can never kill me.” Images of protests are projected on screens, and a graffiti-covered wall stands as a backdrop. Each woman introduces herself to the audience, describing who she is and why she should be named Miss Maroon and White. Each declaration is imbued with a mix of appreciation for the men of Morehouse in a country where the certainty of their very existence feels precarious. “Brothers grow not weary in this plight, black will prevail in this perilous fight,” one young woman says as she opens the evening with a poem.

The auditorium is filled with a cross section of students: athletes in sports apparel, fashionistas in trendsetting attire, anti-capitalism activists with Afros crinkled toward the sky, and students who spent the summer interning on Wall Street. Many, such as Morehouse junior Chad Rhym, were unaware such plurality existed among a group often portrayed as culturally indistinguishable. “I got to Morehouse, and I saw all these different communities,” Rhym says.

Rhym sits across from me outside the Maroon Tiger newsroom, where he’s one of the paper’s editors. He has a scruffy beard, amber skin, and an intentionally ruffled low-temp fade. “We can all watch the game but then talk about satire and talk about the Republican Party or what’s going on with our political climate,” he says, echoing a sentiment Dixon expressed. At many HBCUs, students have made their way to a place where they don’t have to pick and choose certain parts of themselves to share with the world. It’s a place where they can be varied, where they can be whole.

Rhym clearly felt a weight had been lifted from his shoulders upon coming to Morehouse, which gave him the room to explore. His college decision was catalyzed by spending time in mostly white spaces. His high school in Athens, Georgia, was predominantly black, but his advanced courses, like Dixon’s, were nearly all white. “It’s like,” he says, pausing and looking up as if waiting for the thought to become fully crystallized, “do I belong here? White people telling you about ‘affirmative action,’ like you don’t really belong. So coming to Morehouse is getting that huge confidence boost, like you deserved it.”

Sometimes it wasn’t even as subtle as a comment about affirmative action. “I’ve been called ‘nigger,’ ” he says, shaking his head. “So being in this cluster of black men, it’s like, oh, we all know what we’ve been through. We all know what’s been put up against us.”

Rhym describes a feeling that has been articulated by black students since HBCUs were established in the mid-19th century. One of the most preeminent HBCU alums, W.E.B. Du Bois, wrote about his own discovery at Fisk University in his book Darkwater—an amalgamation of essays, poems, and multigenre polemic musings.

For Du Bois, who graduated as the only black student in his high school class in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Fisk was a revelation. He recalled that his years at Fisk marked the first time in his life that he was surrounded by people who shared his experience. Fisk expanded his understanding of what it meant to be black in America. It was neither, as some social scientists of the day implied, a homogenous culture nor an inferior one. It was a vibrant and dynamic community of people whose experiences were as diverse as the complexions of their skin.

“Consider, for a moment,” Du Bois wrote, “how miraculous it all was to a boy of seventeen, just escaped from a narrow valley … my people came dancing about me … Boys with my own experiences and out of my own world, who knew and understood.”

In August 2017 I returned to Atlanta to attend “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” part of a weeklong new-student orientation that officially welcomed nearly 750 young men to Morehouse.

It was cool for an August morning, still balmy with the thick air of a southern summer. The campus was quiet but for the intermittent whistles and the crashing of shoulder pads from a preseason football practice. The sun still rested between yesterday and today, not yet etching its way into the blue-black sky.

Dressed in plain white T-shirts, black shorts, and an array of multicolored running shoes in front of the Frederick Douglass Academic Resource Center, the Morehouse freshman class stood with their arms locked, swaying left to right as they sang the Morehouse hymn. On the stairwell stood upperclassmen wearing various iterations of all-black garments. Some held torches that illuminated the area, while others moved between the interlocked lines of freshmen.

Janae’ Sumter used art and activism to encourage Spelman College to be more supportive of the school’s LGBTQ community. After graduating in spring 2017, she enrolled at New York’s Pratt Institute.
Janae’ Sumter used art and activism to encourage Spelman College to be more supportive of the school’s LGBTQ community. After graduating in spring 2017, she enrolled at New York’s Pratt Institute.
Photograph by Radcliffe “Ruddy” Roye

“When you go out, people are going to see Morehouse,” shouted one of the torch-bearing upperclassmen. “They don’t just see you. So you have to hold your brothers accountable.”

After another more forceful rendition of the hymn, the young men sprinted off into the morning behind an upperclassman holding a torch. Every few minutes the students transitioned from station to station—blurry cavalcades of white streaks crisscrossing the campus. At each station they learned more of the history, the rituals, and the mission of being a Morehouse man.

At one of the stations, an upperclassman in a tweed jacket and maroon tie stood on the high pedestal of the college’s Martin Luther King, Jr., statue in front of the chapel and spoke forcefully: “Our color intimidates them, for they fear an educated black man.” The freshmen stared up at him as he moved between the wide bronze legs of King’s rendering. With the vehemence of a southern preacher, he invoked the nomenclature of the racial justice movements that have shaped the social and cultural landscape in the past several years: Hands up, don’t shoot. Say her name. I can’t breathe. Black lives matter.

What makes Morehouse and Spelman important is not necessarily the idea that these students represent the best of black America but that they represent the diversity of black America. There are students who grew up being the only black students at their elite primary and secondary schools and students who went to public schools in low-income areas. There are socially conservative evangelical students who struggle to accept homosexuality, and there are transgender students pushing the traditional boundaries of gender and sexuality in new directions. There are students with radical political sensibilities—who advocate the abolition of prisons, police, and capitalism. There are students who represent the third generation of their families to attend these schools and who plan to work in finance.

There is not so much a quintessential “Morehouse man” or “Spelman woman” as there is a range of students defining for themselves what they will draw from their experiences. These students are coming of age at a time of renewed political engagement and are trying to better understand who they are as young black people in relation to a changing world. Students at HBCUs have often been at the forefront of advocating social change across lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality. “During the civil rights movement the women of Spelman and the men of Morehouse were on the front lines,” Spelman president Campbell says. “The entire history of HBCUs has been to disrupt the narrative around black people.”

I did not attend a historically black college, but I am the progeny of Spelman and Morehouse. I, instead, made my way to a small liberal arts school where I was one of 12 black men in my graduating class. I was a Division I athlete. I wrote for the school paper. I joined a black fraternity. I made lifelong friends.

I always knew, however, that there was an experience I wasn’t having, that there was something unique about an HBCU that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else. I think about the pride of my parents. I was adorned in maroon-and-white Morehouse paraphernalia at a young age. I would hear my parents laugh in a way I had never heard before when their college friends visited our home for dinner. It was a different kind of joy. The historically black college experience reaffirmed that they belonged to something, a place and a people worthy of celebrating.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting provided a grant to support the photography for this story.

Nina Robinsons photography unites personal, documentary, and fine art styles. Her work spurs viewers to see past race, class, age, and gender. Writer and educator Clint Smith focuses on racism and inequality in the United States. His first book of poetry, Counting Descent, was published in 2016. Brooklyn-based photographer Radcliffe “Ruddy” Roye uses portraiture and photojournalism to tell real stories of real people, especially fellow Jamaicans.

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