• josephdemma

HBCUs, historically.

The United States of America is an ongoing tale of conflict and growth that ought not to be considered from a bifurcated, partisan perspective. Founded under the auspices of freedom and equality, the United States has always struggled with the fundamental hypocrisy embedded within race relations as it strives to form "a more perfect union" (U.S. Constitution, pmbl).

An honest investigation of American history must acknowledge that freedom and equality are not goalposts one reaches but an endless journey fraught with both peril and joy alike. It is through the lens of hindsight that we understand the imperfections, as well as the wonders, that manifest within the borders of a country principally defined by its celebration of unity and quest for equal opportunity.

Influential players on America's journey for equality are her Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). With an original mission to educate Black Americans, their formation and operation also served the informal, perhaps more lofty, ideal of hope (Duster, 2009). This paper does not presume to untangle the web of challenges related to racial bias. Instead, it is a brief exploration of the contributions of, and the issues and trends that shape, America's HBCUs.


Woven tightly into the United States tapestry is the belief that education is the key to upward mobility and freedom (Allen and Jewell, 2002; Duster, 2009;). Nowhere is the democratic ideal of education and its related "economic ascendency" (Duster, 2009, p.102) more alive than in the HBCU struggle for existence, relevance, and education delivery to one of history's most oppressed populations. Ironically, the financial, social, political, and legal barriers overcome by America's HBCUs are the very essence of the grit and resolve that define our nation.

As "catalysts and agents for social change" (Allen and Jewell, 2002, p.249), HBCUs have consistently sought to provide an environment of empowerment for Black Americans. For example, Cheyney University, as the first HBCU in the United States, served the express purpose of educating Black students to become teachers (Black History in Two Minutes or so, 2020). Like all HBCUs, Cheyney University faced both external and internal barriers as they welcomed a population of Black students unprepared for post-secondary education. Due to inadequate secondary educational opportunities for Black youth, Cheyney and the other early HBCUs served as comprehensive institutes offering elementary, college preparatory, and college instruction (Allen and Jewell, 2002; Black History in Two Minutes or so, 2020).

Allen and Jewell (2002) note that not only were HBCUs hard at work offering education for Blacks, but they were also the "first institutions to open their doors to students regardless of race, creed, color, gender, or national origin" (p.255). Also, HBCUs attract to their faculty ranks an impressive cadre of international talent. There can be no more 'American' vision than that of the HBCUs for inclusion. Yet, the challenges they faced throughout their evolution highlight fundamental hypocrisy, indeed un-American behavior, of a White society intent on their estrangement (Allen and Jewell, 20020; Anderson, 2010).

Issues and Challenges

Challenges to success for HBCUs are unequivocally rooted in rampant racism and bigotry. At best, these colleges had to overcome "segregation and indifference to racial integration" (Thelin, 2019, p.231). For example, even the generosity of religious and industry-based philanthropy, early White supporters of Black education, had segregationist undertones of isolation and compartmentalization (Allen and Jewell, 2002; Anderson, 2010; Thelin, 2019).

While mostly well-meaning in their desire to "uplift the black masses from the legacy of slavery and the restraints of the postbellum caste system" (Anderson, 2010, p.241), religious philanthropists could never escape their paternalistic tendency to determine for themselves the education needs for Blacks. Industrial philanthropists, however, were more focused on their desire to create a powerful working-class society of Black Americans through "basic academic competence, manual laboring skills, and political accommodation" (Allen and Jewell, 2010, p.245).

Because the industrial philanthropists believed Blacks to be morally and intellectually inferior to Whites, they supported educational opportunities 'confined' to vocational programs rather than liberal arts training (Allen and Jewell, 2002; Anderson, 2010; Duster, 2009). Even as federal policy under the Morrill Act of 1890 forbade states from discriminatory education practices, some states would engage in what Thelin (2019) calls "inclusion without integration" (p.234). In these cases, states would create land-grant institutions specifically for Black Americans and compel a trades-based curriculum (Allen and Jewell, 2002; Thelin, 2019).

Seizing on the opportunity provided by any entry into academic offerings for Black Americans, Booker T. Washington embraced southern public support for vocational training as a means to expand his vision more broadly. On the one hand, he preached accommodation to White interests of trades-only education for Blacks while relentlessly raising money "to establish Tuskegee College as a place where Blacks could get training to become doctors and lawyers" (Duster, 2009, p.104).

Beyond the expansion of academic opportunity his vision provided for Black Americans, Booker T. Washington showed great genius as he engaged in a long-term political chess match to secure his community's economic and social freedom. As a result, enrollment in HBCUs grew, and predominantly White institutions (PWIs) began to siphon academically elite Black youth into their programs (Thelin, 2019).


Despite the HBCU and Mr. Washington's astute maneuverings around and through a system intent on the subversion of Black mobility, challenges to equality in education persist as trends in degree attainment identify glaring socioeconomic gaps (Allen and Jewell, 2002). For example, Allen and Jewell (2002) point to the University of California's decision in 1998 to end affirmative action policies relative to the admission of minorities into its programs. The end of these admissions policies resulted in a "40-50% reduction in the enrollment" of minority students across the University's statewide campuses.

Not all attempts to stifle minority enrollment in higher education have been as blatant.

The late 1970s in America saw a coordinated effort to devalue Civil Rights policies and laws as "legally suspect or even unnecessary" (Allen and Jewell, 2002, p.251). Predicated on the idea that the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in America had eradicated racial barriers, conservative political policies that favored fewer interventionist strategies became the norm. As a result, the significant progress of Black enrollment and degree attainment carried by the HBCUs throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s has shifted significantly in the wrong direction. In fact, HBCU enrollment trends project that they will soon be home to a student body that is "a majority of White students" (Allen and Jewell, 2002, p.257).


America's Historically Black Colleges and Universities have the interesting distinction of being born out of bigotry and isolation while also serving as the very beacon of determination and ingenuity that defines the country. HBCUs have empowered generations of Black Americans seeking self-determination, social relevance, and economic prosperity. And, they have done so in an environment of racism that has been both passive-aggressive and outright hostile.

The work of HBCUs, indeed for all of us in higher education, toward equity in accessibility is not – and perhaps will never be complete. For example, in the wake of the death of George Floyd of Minnesota in 2020, colleges and universities across the United States pledged to re-focus on "diversifying faculty, improving graduation rates for students of color and examining (racial) bias in the curriculum" (Bartlett, 2021).

For their part, politicians in Washington, D.C. are not sitting idly. U.S. Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Chris Coons (D-DE) recently announced a program in which students at HBCUs can engage in an unprecedented internship to "create opportunity for everyone to achieve their American Dream" (Scott in Richardson, 2021).

Once again, as America sets its sights on racial equality and opportunity for all of her children, HBCUs are properly positioned at the center of the stage.


Allen, W.R., & Jewell, J.O. (2002). A Backward Glance Forward: Past, Present and Future Perspectives on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The Review of Higher Education 25(3), 241-261. doi:10.1353/rhe.2002.0007.

Bartlett, T. (2021, February 15). The Antiracist College. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Black History in Two Minutes or so. (2020, April 17). African American Higher Education | Henry Louis Gates, Jr. [Video]. YouTube.

Duster, T. (2009). The Long Path to Higher Education for African Americans. Thought and Action, 99-110.

Richardson, H. (2021, April 2). Hatch Foundation teams up with Senators Scott, Coons for HBCU internship program.

Thelin, J. R. (2019). A history of American higher education (3rd ed.). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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