Photos Highlight the Unique Traditions of Historically Black Colleges

Marching bands, pageants and other examples of HBCU life.

Photograph by Radcliffe "Ruddy" Roye, National Geographic
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Morehouse graduates participate in commencement activities last Spring. Graduation is considered the time where the young adults who attended the college become Morehouse men.
Photograph by Radcliffe "Ruddy" Roye, National Geographic

Students are applying to Historically Black Colleges and Universities in record numbers. During the past three years, applications to Spelman College, a private women’s liberal arts college in Atlanta, have gone from 5,000 in 2014 to 9,000 for the current application cycle, a historic high, Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell said recently.

Like Spelman, many HBCUs across the country are experiencing a surge in enrollment. Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in September 2016 that shared the recent at influx many schools: “Freshman enrollment is up 49 percent at Shaw University, 39 percent at South Carolina State, 32 percent at Tuskegee University, 30 percent at Virginia State University, 22 percent at Dillard University, 22 percent at Central State University, 20 percent at Florida Memorial University, and 19 percent at Delaware State University.”

Kimbrough suggested that the reason enrollment is increasing at many of these schools was because of increased racial tensions throughout the country. He suggested that HBCUs can offer black students something their predominantly white counterparts cannot, a space where they are able to be their fullest selves. “For black students, HBCUs continue to serve as the original safe spaces.”

Fashion is More Than Tradition at Historically Black Colleges

HBCUs like Spelman have been lauded for producing results. “According to the United Negro College Fund, 70 percent of black dentists and doctors, 50 percent of black engineers and public school educators, 35 percent of black lawyers are graduates of HBCUs,” Campbell wrote. HBCUs have provided more African American graduates in STEM fields than all Ivy League colleges combined,” Campbell wrote.

According to a 2013 National Science Foundation report, 21 of the top 50 institutions that produce engineering and science doctoral degrees, are HBCUs. HBCUs, which make up only 3 percent of black students in higher education in the United States, produce nearly 30 percent of African American students with undergraduate degrees in the STEM fields

For students, the colleges are more than safe spaces. They offer a sense of home. Their traditions offer a link between the past and the future. From family reunion style homecomings to vibrant marching bands to the pageantry of campus queens, HBCUs offer distinct experiences that give students a sense of belonging and connection.

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Spelman College alumna participate in Class Day, one of the graduation traditions at the college. On class day, alumni, dressed in white, precede the senior class as they walk through the Spelman Arch, symbolizing graduating from college and moving into greater service.