Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are institutions of higher education in the United States that were established before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the intention of primarily serving the African-American community. Most of these institutions were founded in the years after the American Civil War and are concentrated in the Southern United States. During the period of segregation in the United States prior to the Civil Rights Act, the overwhelming majority of higher education institutions were predominantly white and completely disqualified or limited African-American enrollment. For a century after the end of slavery in the United States in 1865, most colleges and universities in the Southern United States prohibited all African Americans from attending, while institutions in other parts of the country regularly employed quotas to limit admissions of blacks. HBCUs were established to give opportunities to African Americans especially in the South.
There are 101 HBCUs in the United States (of 121 institutions that existed during the 1930s), representing three percent of the nation's colleges and universities, including both public and private institutions. Of these remaining HBCU institutions in the United States, 27 offer doctoral programs, 52 offer master's programs, 83 offer bachelor's degree programs, and 38 offer associate degrees. Among the graduates of HBCUs are civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., United States Vice President Kamala Harris, and former president of Brown University Ruth Simmons.
Most HBCUs were established in the South after the American Civil War, often with the assistance of religious missionary organizations based in the northern United States. HBCUs established prior to the American Civil War include Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in 1837 and Lincoln University in 1854. Wilberforce University was also established prior to the American Civil War; it was founded in 1856 via a collaboration between the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Ohio and the Methodist Episcopal Church (the latter a predominantly white denomination).
Exactly three months after the end of the Civil War, Atlanta University – now Clark Atlanta University – was founded on September 19, 1865, as the first HBCU in the Southern United States. Atlanta University was the first graduate institution to award degrees to African Americans in the nation and the first to award bachelors degrees to African Americans in the South; Clark College (1869) was the nation's first four-year liberal arts college to serve African-American students. The two consolidated in 1988 to form Clark Atlanta University. Shaw University, founded December 1, 1865, was the second HBCU to be established in the South. The year 1865 also saw the foundation of Storer College (1865–1955) in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. Storer's former campus and buildings have since been incorporated into Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
In 1862, the federal government's Morrill Act provided for land grant colleges in each state. Some educational institutions established under the Morrill Act in the North and West were open to blacks. But 17 states, mostly in the South, required their systems to be segregated and generally excluded black students from their land grant colleges. In response, Congress passed the second Morrill Act of 1890, also known as the Agricultural College Act of 1890, requiring states to establish a separate land grant college for blacks if blacks were being excluded from the existing land grant college. Many of the HBCUs were founded by states to satisfy the Second Morrill Act. These land grant schools continue to receive annual federal funding for their research, extension, and outreach activities.
In the 1920s and 1930s, historically Black colleges developed a strong interest in athletics. Sports were expanding rapidly at state universities, but very few black stars were recruited there. Race newspapers hailed athletic success as a demonstration of racial progress. Black schools hired coaches, recruited and featured stellar athletes, and set up their own leagues.
In the 1930s, many Jewish intellectuals fleeing Europe after the rise of Hitler and anti-Jewish legislation in prewar Nazi Germany following Hitler's elevation to power emigrated to the United States and found work teaching in historically black colleges. In particular, 1933 was a challenging year for many Jewish academics who tried to escape increasingly oppressive Nazi policies, particularly after legislation was passed stripping them of their positions at universities. Jews looking outside of Germany could not find work in other European countries because of calamities like the Spanish Civil War and general antisemitism in Europe. In the US, they hoped to continue their academic careers, but barring a scant few, found little acceptance in elite institutions in Depression-era America, which also had their own undercurrent of antisemitism.
As a result of these phenomena, more than two-thirds of the faculty hired at many HBCUs from 1933 to 1945 had come to the United States to escape from Nazi Germany. HBCUs believed the Jewish professors were valuable faculty that would help strengthen their institutions' credibility. HBCUs had a firm belief in diversity and giving opportunity no matter the race, religion, or country of origin. HBCUs were open to Jews because of their ideas of equal learning spaces. They sought to create an environment where all people felt welcome to study, including women.
World War II
Florida's black junior colleges
After the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, the legislature of Florida, with support from various counties, started a series of eleven junior colleges serving the African-American population. The purpose was to show that separate but equal education was working in Florida. Prior to this, there had been only one junior college in Florida serving African Americans, Booker T. Washington Junior College, in Pensacola, founded in 1949. The new ones, with their year of founding, are
- Gibbs Junior College (1957)
- Roosevelt Junior College (1958)
- Volusia County Junior College (1958)
- Hampton Junior College (1958)
- Rosenwald Junior College (1958)
- Suwannee River Junior College (1959)
- Carver Junior College (1960)
- Collier-Blocker Junior College (1960)
- Lincoln Junior College (1960)
- Jackson Junior College (1961)
- Johnson Junior College (1962)
The new junior colleges began as extensions of black high schools; they used the same facilities and often the same faculty. Some built their own buildings after a few years. After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandating an end to school segregation, the colleges were all abruptly closed. Only a fraction of the students and faculty were able to transfer to the previously all-white junior colleges, where they found, at best, an indifferent reception.
A reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 established a program for direct federal grants to HBCUs, to support their academic, financial, and administrative capabilities. Part B specifically provides for formula-based grants, calculated based on each institution's Pell grant eligible enrollment, graduation rate, and percentage of graduates who continue post baccalaureate education in fields where African Americans are underrepresented. Some colleges with a predominantly black student body are not classified as HBCUs because they were founded (or opened their doors to African Americans) after the implementation of the Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and Brown v. Board of Education (1954) rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court (the court decisions which outlawed racial segregation of public education facilities) and the Higher Education Act of 1965.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter signed an executive order to distribute adequate resources and funds to strengthen the nation's public and private HBCUs. His executive order created the White House Initiative on historically black colleges and universities (WHIHBCU), which is a federally funded program that operates within the U.S. Department of Education. In 1989, George H. W. Bush continued Carter's pioneering spirit by signing Executive Order 12677, which created the presidential advisory board on HBCUs, to counsel the government and the secretary on the future development of these organizations.
Starting in 2001, directors of libraries of several HBCUs began discussions about ways to pool their resources and work collaboratively. In 2003, this partnership was formalized as the HBCU Library Alliance, "a consortium that supports the collaboration of information professionals dedicated to providing an array of resources designed to strengthen historically black colleges and Universities and their constituents."
In 2015, the Bipartisan Congressional Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Caucus was established by U.S. Representatives Alma S. Adams and Bradley Byrne. The caucus advocates for HBCUs on Capitol Hill. As of September 2019, there are 94 elected politicians as members of the caucus.
Every year, the U.S. Department of Education deems one week in the fall as "National HBCU Week". During this week, several conferences and events are held in Washington, D.C. discussing and celebrating HBCUs, as well as recognize select scholars and alumni from the HBCU community.
In 2015, the share of black students attending HBCUs had dropped to 9% of the total number of black students enrolled in degree-granting institutions nationwide. This figure is a decline from the 13% of black students that enrolled in an HBCU in the year 2000 and the 17% that enrolled in 1980. This is a result of desegregation, rising incomes and increased access to financial aid, which has created more college options for black students.
The percentages of bachelor's and master's degrees awarded to black students by HBCUs has decreased over time. HBCUs awarded 35% of the bachelor's degrees and 21% of the master's degrees earned by blacks in 1976–77, compared with the 14% and 6% respectively of bachelor's and master's degrees earned by blacks in 2014–15. Additionally, the percentage of black doctoral degree recipients who received their degrees from HBCUs was lower in 2014–15 (12%) than in 1976–77 (14%).
The number of total students enrolled at an HBCU rose by 32% between 1976 and 2015, from 223,000 to 293,000. In comparison, total enrollment in degree-granting institutions nationwide increased by 81%, from 11 million to 20 million, during the same period.
Although HBCUs were originally founded to educate black students, their diversity has increased over time. In 2015, students who were either white, Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander, or Native American made up 22% of total enrollment at HBCUs, compared with 15% in 1976.
There are also developments in how African Americans may choose or not choose an HBCU. The most critical resource of any institution of higher learning is its human capital, and HBCUs are at risk of losing that as well. The current admission policies of predominately White institutions (PWIs) ensure that qualified applicants of any color are accepted and most top institutions actively recruit minority students. Well qualified minority students are often the target of frenzied competition (Cross, 2007). This competition is reflected in the inducements offered by PWIs to qualified Black applicants, most notably monetary incentives, which many students and their parents find too attractive to pass up. For this reason and others, fewer Black undergraduates are choosing to attend HBCUs, this figure has gradually declined to 22% as of 2002 (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).  This dwindling percentage, coupled with opportunities at PWIs, have led some to speculate whether the HBCU has outlived it purpose and lost its relevance for Black youth (Lemelle, 2002; Sowell 1993; Suggs, 1997b).
Racial diversity post-2000
Following the enactment of Civil Rights laws in the 1960s, many educational institutions in the United States that receive federal funding have undertaken affirmative action to increase their racial diversity. Some historically black colleges and universities now have non-black majorities, including West Virginia State University and Bluefield State College, whose student bodies have had large white majorities since the mid-1960s.
Because many HBCUs have made a concerted effort to maintain enrollment levels and because they often offer relatively affordable tuition, the percentage of non–African-American enrollment has risen. The following table highlights HBCUs with high non–African American enrollments:
|Bluefield State College||West Virginia||8||92|
|West Virginia State University||West Virginia||8||92|
|Kentucky State University||Kentucky||46||54|
|Delaware State University||Delaware||64||36|
|Lincoln University (Pennsylvania)||Pennsylvania||84||16|
|University of the District of Columbia||District of Columbia||59||41|
|Elizabeth City State University||North Carolina||76||24|
|Fayetteville State University||North Carolina||60||40|
|Winston-Salem State University||North Carolina||71||29|
|Xavier University of Louisiana||Louisiana||70||30|
|North Carolina A&T State University||North Carolina||80||20|
Other HBCUs with relatively high non–African American student populations
The percentage of white student populations currently attending historically black colleges and universities according to statistical profiles compiled by the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges 2011 edition are Langston University (12%); Shaw University (12%); Tennessee State University (12%); University of Maryland Eastern Shore (12%); and North Carolina Central University (10%). The U.S. News & World Report's statistical profiles indicate that several other HBCUs have relatively significant percentages of non–African American student populations consisting of Asian, Hispanic, international, and white American students.
Special academic programs
HBCU libraries have formed the HBCU Library Alliance. That alliance, together with Cornell University, have a joint program to digitize HBCU collections. The project is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Additionally, more historically black colleges and universities are offering online education programs. As of November 23, 2010, nineteen historically black colleges and universities offer online degree programs. The growth in these programs is driven by partnerships with online educational entrepreneurs like Ezell Brown.
NCAA Division I has two historically black athletic conferences: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Southwestern Athletic Conference. The top football teams from the conferences have played each other in postseason bowl games: the Pelican Bowl (1970s), the Heritage Bowl (1990s), and the Celebration Bowl (2010s). These conferences are home to all Division I HBCUs except for Hampton University and Tennessee State University. Tennessee State has been a member of the Ohio Valley Conference since 1986, while Hampton left the MEAC in 2018 for the Big South Conference. In 2021, North Carolina A&T State University will make the same conference move that Hampton made three years earlier (MEAC to Big South).
The mostly HBCU Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association and Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference are part of the NCAA Division II, whereas the HBCU Gulf Coast Athletic Conference is part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
HBCUs have a rich legacy of matriculating many leaders in the fields of business, law, science, education, military service, entertainment, art, and sports.
- Alcee Hastings, US Congressman from Florida's 20th congressional district - Fisk University, Howard University, Florida A&M University
- Althea Gibson, Florida A&M University on a full athletic scholarship.
- Anika Noni Rose attended Florida A&M University where she earned a bachelor's degree in theater.
- Claude McKay, poet, Tuskegee University
- Common, musician, writer - Florida A&M University
- Douglas Wilder received his bachelor's degree from Virginia Union University and his law degree from Howard University School of Law.
- James Clyburn, US Congressman from South Carolina's 6th congressional district and Majority Whip of the 116th United States Congress - South Carolina State University
- Kamala Harris, the first black Vice President, received her bachelor's degree from Howard University.
- NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson attended West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University).
- Leon H. Sullivan, developer of the Sullivan Principles used to end apartheid in South Africa, attended West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University).
- Lonnie Johnson, inventor, NASA engineer - Tuskegee University
- Marian Wright Edelman, civil rights leader - Spelman College
- Martin Luther King Jr., Morehouse College, following in the footsteps of his father, Martin Luther King, Sr
- Michael Strahan played one season of high school football, which was enough for him to get a scholarship offer from Texas Southern University.
- Nikki Giovanni, poet - Fisk University
- Oprah Winfrey, Tennessee State University to pursue a broadcasting career.
- Ralph Abernathy, civil rights activist, minister - Clark Atlanta University, Alabama State University
- Rod Paige earned a bachelor's degree from Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.
- Astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair graduated from North Carolina A&T State University.
- Roscoe Lee Browne also attended Lincoln University, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree, in 1946. Browne also occasionally returned to Lincoln, between 1946 and 1952, to teach English, French and comparative literature.
- Ruth Simmons is a Dillard University graduate who became the first black president of an Ivy League institution (Brown University).
- Spike Lee enrolled in Morehouse College, where he made his first student film, Last Hustle in Brooklyn. He took film courses at Clark Atlanta University and graduated with a BA in mass communication from Morehouse.
- The Tuskegee Airmen were educated at Tuskegee University.
- Thurgood Marshall attended Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore and was placed in classes with the best students. He later went on to graduate from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Howard University School of Law. In 1933, he graduated first in his law class at Howard.
- W. E. B. Du Bois, relying on money donated by neighbors, attended Fisk University, from 1885 to 1888. After Du Bois earned his doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology, and economics at Clark Atlanta University, between 1897 and 1910.
Claude McKay, poet (Tuskegee University)
Common, musician, writer (Florida A&M University)
Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States (Howard University)
Katherine Johnson, NASA mathematician (West Virginia State University)
Lonnie Johnson, inventor, NASA engineer (Tuskegee University)
Marian Wright Edelman, civil rights (Spelman College)
Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights (Morehouse College)
Michael Strahan, athlete and media personality (Texas Southern University)
Nikki Giovanni, poet (Fisk University)
Oprah Winfrey, media mogul (Tennessee State University)
Ralph Abernathy, civil rights activist, minister (Clark Atlanta University, Alabama State University)
Ruth J. Simmons, university president (Dillard University)
Spike Lee, filmmaker (Morehouse College)
W. E. B. Du Bois, sociologist (Fisk University)
Government funding has increased in recent years, with the Obama administration setting a six-year record in 2016 by expanding support to HBCUs by $17 million under the Higher Education Act.
HBCU Buzz is a news platform of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Its coverage focuses on telling the stories of HBCU community across the US, highlighting achievements of the blacks and Black millennial visionaries. Established in 2011, HBCU Buzz serves as a resource tool for prospective students and alumni of HBCU. HBCU Buzz organizes annual HBCU Top 30 Under 30, to recognize the achievements of alumni of HBCU in various fields of endeavors such as politics, public service, technology, entertainment, entrepreneurship, fashion, health, education and money.
- Beyoncé 2018 Coachella performance
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- Wright, Stephanie R. (2008). "Self-Determination, Politics, and Gender on Georgia's Black College Campuses, 1875–1900". The Georgia Historical Quarterly. 92 (1): 93–119. ISSN 0016-8297. JSTOR 40585040.
- Reflections of an HBCU Alumnus (Howard University)
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