African American Colleges & Universities Research Paper Starter

African American Colleges & Universities

This article outlines the origins, composition, and development of African American colleges and universities, also known as "historically black colleges and universities" (HBCU), in the United States. Since their inception during the early nineteenth century, HBCUs have been established to provide quality postsecondary instruction to Americans of African descent. These institutions have successfully educated millions of students despite public disdain, legislative ambivalence, limited resources, and accreditation violations. To fully articulate the role of the black college system in America, factors such as enrollment, curriculum, and funding are considered. The future outlook for HBCUs based on efficacy, obstacles, criticism, and recent trends are then summarized in the viewpoints section.

Keywords Academic Accreditation; Black College System; Brown v. Board of Education of 1954; The Civil Rights Act of 1964; The Higher Education Act of 1965; Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU); Jim Crow Laws; Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Acts; National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO); Plessey v. Ferguson; Predominantly Black Institution (PBI); School of Black Plurality; United States v. Fordice; White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities


Most historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) were established following the emancipation of the slaves to provide higher educational opportunities to people of African descent in the United States. These early institutions offered curricula designed to help newly freed slaves assimilate and compete during the Reconstruction era by acquiring reading, writing, agricultural, industrial, and practical skills. The majority of HBCUs in the United States were established in the South from 1876 to 1964 during the "separate but equal" policy of the Jim Crow laws—meaning black were to have access to the same public services as whites, but in separate facilities. This doctrine was applied to everything from drinking fountains to institutions of higher education.

An HBCU is defined as any college or university, established prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which nullified all remaining Jim Crow policy), dedicated to the enrichment and advancement of freed descendants of slaves in the United States. As of the early twenty-first century, there are more than one hundred public and private HBCUs in the United States offering two- and four-year degree programs to more than 300,000 students (Gasman, 2007). This unique network of higher education employs more than 60,000 people in twenty-two states and territories, and makes up three percent of all colleges and universities in the United States (Brown, 2004). Although most HBCUs are located in the southeast and border regions, there are also institutions in California, Washington D.C., Michigan, Ohio, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

According to African American scholar W. E. B. DuBois, if it were not for African American colleges and universities, "the Negro would for all intents and purposes, have been driven back to slavery" (cited in Lemelle, 2002, p. 191). HBCUs are not only responsible for forming the black middle class in America; they have produced "the majority of black judges, doctors, teachers, social workers, military officers, and civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. John Lewis, and Rev. Jesse Jackson" (LeBlanc, 2001, p. 46). During the civil rights era, graduates of HBCUs "challenged and revolutionized the social institutions of this nation with non-violent social change" (Lockett, 1994, p. 4).

Besides HBCUs, there are three other categories of institutions of higher education in the United States from the African American perspective: predominantly black institutions or PBIs (any college or university more than half of whose student body is black); institutions of black plurality (an institution having a large community of black students); and predominantly white institutions (opened to African American students after Brown v. Board of Education in 1954). Thus, based on enrollment, an HBCU (post-1954) could be considered a predominantly black institution, an institution of black plurality, or a predominantly white institution.


The first known African American colleges were private institutions in free states established prior to the Civil War. The first HBCU was founded in 1837 in Cheyney, Pennsylvania, by a Philadelphia Quaker named Richard Humphreys. Initially called the Institute for Colored Youth, the school offered vocational and teacher training to free blacks. In 1854, the Ashmun Institute in Pennsylvania (later renamed Lincoln University) became the first HBCU to offer free blacks higher education programs in liberal arts and science, and Wilberforce University in Ohio distinguished itself as the first private HBCU in the nation, as well as the first to admit black women. Other pioneers in black postsecondary education include Bowie State University in Maryland, Lincoln University in Missouri, and Howard University in Washington, D.C.

The growth and legitimacy of the black college system was bolstered through a series of legislative mandates in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, which gave states 30,000 acres of public land for each congressional representative in order to create and support a system of higher education in each state. Shortly after the inception of Morrill, HBCUs were founded throughout the northern and midwestern states. However, many historically black colleges and universities were not established until a second Morrill Act was passed in 1890 that allowed blacks to attend land-grant institutions in southern states. Prior to the Morrill legislation, most HBCUs were established and funded by northern philanthropists, industrialists, free blacks, and religious missionaries such as the American Missionary Association.

After 1890, a new system of state-sponsored HBCUs was developed throughout the southern states using the land-grant funding provided under the original Morrill Act. The nascent HBCUs in the South were viewed as a threat to the traditional white-dominated system and, at best, were "unenthusiastically tolerated" by the establishment. Freed slaves were allowed to have access to higher education as long as it was limited, poor, proscriptive, and did not infringe on skilled labor historically reserved for whites (LeMelle, 2002).

HBCUs after Jim Crow

Despite the criticism by blacks and whites and their negative historical circumstances, HBCUs were officially recognized as a formal system of postsecondary education by Title III of the Higher Education Act of 1965. The Strengthening Historically Black Colleges and Universities Program, part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program, also provided funding and institutional support to the black college system.

In 1969, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) was formed by HBCU presidents to help support and advance the black institutions of higher learning in America. According to the NAFEO national website, the mission of the organization is:

"to champion the interests of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and predominantly black institutions (PBIs) with the executive, legislative, regulatory, and judicial branches of federal and state government and with corporations, foundations, associations and nongovernmental organizations; to provide services to NAFEO members; to build the capacity of HBCUs, their executives, administrators, faculty, staff and students; and to serve as an international voice and advocate for the preservation and enhancement of historically and predominantly black colleges and universities and for blacks in higher education" (NAFEO, 2007).

In recent decades the HBCU system has received federal support and assistance through the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, established by President Jimmy Carter in 1981 (and updated by his successors) and designed to strengthen...

(The entire section is 3590 words.)