Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)

The Higher Education Act of 1965 defined Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as those founded before 1964 with the mission of educating African Americans. At the outset, it is worth keeping in mind that Historically Black Colleges and Universities are distinct from predominantly Black colleges and universities, which serve large numbers of Black students but were not founded with the unique mission of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and do not share their federal designation. This entry reviews the history and status of HBCUs in the world of American higher education.

History of HBCUs

Historically Black Colleges and Universities were established to educate Blacks who could not gain admission to White colleges. Three Historically Black Colleges and Universities opened prior to the Civil War and are generally considered the first colleges established for African Americans: Cheyney University (1837) and Lincoln University (1854) in Pennsylvania and Wilberforce University (1856) in Ohio. The remainder were established after 1865 and operated as segregated institutions until segregation was dismantled in higher education by U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Sweatt v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (1950), cases that forbade inter- and intrainstitutional racial segregation, respectively. Subsequently, due to Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka (1954) and the civil rights movement, more Black students enrolled in White colleges and universities.
Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, which opened in 1837, was the first Black institution to educate Blacks beyond elementary school and was founded through a bequest from a Quaker philanthropist, Richard Humphreys. It was followed by Lincoln University in 1854 in Pennsylvania and in 1856 by Wilberforce University in Ohio. The other HBCUs were established after 1865 as religious or teaching training institutions that required advanced elementary education and later secondary education at a time when most states offered only three years of public education. Support for these colleges came from African American benevolent societies, especially those of the Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal churches; northern White benevolent and denominational societies; and wealthy corporate philanthropists such as John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
A small number of Historically Black Colleges and Universities began as private schools and are now public. For example, in 1925 Thurgood Marshall enrolled in Lincoln University in Chester, Pennsylvania, a Black school for male students founded in 1854 by a White Presbyterian minister. Today, Lincoln University is a public college enrolling both males and females.
Among the senior colleges, 16 are land grant colleges under the Morrill Land Grant Acts to help educate farmers, scientists, and teachers; Alcorn State University in Mississippi was the first. Each state was required to provide this education for all races, and the Southern states established one for Whites and one for Blacks in each of these states. These institutions became these states’ A&M and A&T colleges.

Early Examples

Butler’s (1977) history of three distinctive Black colleges provides an illustrative history of the origin of Black colleges. She cited Talladega, Tuskegee, and Morehouse as the best Historically Black Colleges and Universities in 1977. While most Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were organized by Whites for the education of Blacks during the days of segregation, one was organized by a Black person, Booker T. Washington; this was something rare in the 1880s and after. The schools under White direction were able to raise funds and maintain staff, faculty, and administration while drawing top academically prepared students. For example, Thurgood Marshall enjoyed such an environment at Lincoln University and at Howard Law School. At Howard Law School, Marshall’s mentor was the Black dean Charles Hamilton Houston, who graduated from Amherst College as class valedictorian and later graduated from Harvard Law School. Also on the Howard Law faculty was William Henry Hastie, a Harvard Law graduate and editor of the Harvard Law Review (Davis & Clark, 1994). During this period, the best of Black intellectuals taught at Black colleges, for example, W. E. B. Du Bois, the first Black to earn a doctorate from Harvard University, was never offered a job at or taught in a White university. He and others like him taught at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Talladega College

Talladega College is located in a small rural community in Alabama. It is a denominationally supported college that was founded by the American Missionary Association (AMA), and its graduates have made outstanding achievements. Like other AMA schools, Talladega was operated by Whites who also did the teaching in what began as elementary schools before progressing to secondary education years later. Most AMA schools opened college departments in 1870s and taught three courses: Latin, Greek, and higher mathematics. The school offered its first bachelor of arts and science degrees in 1907. Talladega hired its first Black dean, James T. Cater, in 1932. In 1953, it named its first Black president, Rev. Arthur Douglass Gray, an alumnus of the college.

Tuskegee University

Tuskegee University was founded in 1881, when the state of Alabama allocated funds to establish a normal school for Blacks in Macon County. Tuskegee was to be headed by a White principal and asked Hampton Institute’s White principal, General Samuel C. Armstrong, for help in finding a candidate (Butler, 1977). However, when the general informed officials that he was unaware of any White who wanted the job, they hired Booker T. Washington, a graduate of Hampton and the first Black to teach at Hampton to prepare school teachers. Insofar as Washington was Black, and Whites could not work under the direction of a Black person, Tuskegee was unique among the Black colleges in that all of its faculty and administrators were Black until the 1960s. Under Washington’s leadership, Tuskegee added industrial education with a grant from a private foundation. Even so, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute operated primarily as a teacher training program. In 1928 Tuskegee opened a college department and in 1944 began a school of veterinary medicine.

Morehouse College

Morehouse College was established by a White church group in Augusta, Georgia, in order to prepare Black males; it moved to Atlanta in 1878 as the Atlanta Baptist Seminary (Butler, 1977). The institution became Morehouse College in 1913 after receiving a gift from Henry Morehouse, secretary of the Atlanta Baptist Home Mission Society. John Hope became the school’s first African American president in 1906. In 1940, 19 years after beginning his teaching career there, Benjamin E. Mays, a distinguished Black educator, became the fifth president of Morehouse College. Today, the college educates students from more than 40 states and 18 countries and is home to the Andrew Young Center for International Affairs and to the King Papers, a 10,000-piece collection that includes handwritten notes and unpublished sermons of its best-known alumnus, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Changing Enrollments

Although most African Americans attended and graduated from HBCUs prior to the 1950s, this pattern began to change after 1960 due to desegregation efforts ushered in by the Supreme Court in the cases noted above. Since the 1960s, more African Americans have enrolled in White colleges than in HBCUs. In 1964 more than half of Black college students in the United States attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Yet by 1970 only one-third of these students attended HBCUs. Also, although Historically Black Colleges and Universities were established to serve African Americans, they began admitting students of all races in the 1970s amid the social changes of the era. Today, all HBCUs have non- Blacks in their student bodies. In addition to serving students of all races, HCBUs include faculty and administrators of different races.
In 1970 there were more than 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, of which 51 were private senior colleges and 11 were two-year private colleges; another 36 were public senior colleges, while another 4 were public twoyear colleges; total enrollment was 168,000. Most of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities are located in the South; two are in Pennsylvania and two in Ohio. North Carolina leads the way with 11 HBCUs, followed by Alabama with 9; Georgia and South Carolina each have 8, and Texas has 7 Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

HBCUs Today

Today’s approximately 103 Historically Black Colleges and Universities, down from the 123 that existed in 1960, represent about 3% of all colleges and universities in the United States; the number declined due to mergers, closings, and the desegregation of some institutions. More specifically, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) include 41 four-year public colleges, 49 private four-year colleges, 11 two-year public colleges, and 2 two-year private colleges (List of HBCUs, n.d.).
In 2005, Historically Black Colleges and Universities enrolled 311,768 students and conferred 3,819 associate degrees, 30,548 bachelor’s degrees, 6,778 master’s degrees, 1,723 first professional degrees, and 444 doctoral degrees. The average fee for attendance at an HBCU was about $6,000 (U.S. Department of Education, 2007).
At present, Historically Black Colleges and Universities provide students with opportunities to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in a wide range of academic disciplines and professional fields, including law, medicine, dentistry, engineering, education, and nursing. Among the distinguished graduate degree programs are law schools at North Carolina Central University, Texas Southern University, Howard University, and Florida A&M University and medical schools at Howard University, Meharry Medical College, and Morehouse School of Medicine.

Noted Graduates of HBCUs

Graduates of HBCUs have distinguished themselves in many fields. Among the most illustrious of graduates from HBCUs are the renowned civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall; educator and scientist Booker T. Washington; sociologist, historian, and activist W. E. B. Du Bois; authors Toni Morrison, Alex Haley, and Alice Walker; movie director Spike Lee; actors Ossie Davis and Samuel L. Jackson; historian John Hope Franklin; television host and media personality Oprah Winfrey; poet Nikki Giovanni; radio host Tom Joyner; and many leading politicians, pastors, and civil rights leaders, including Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and Calvin O. Butts III.

Future of HBCUs

Allen (1992) found that Black students who attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities perform better academically and have higher aspirations than Black students who attended White colleges and universities. However, extensive research on Black college attendance prior to 1970 was rare. It appears that the population at Black colleges then was significantly different from the population after 1970, when many academically gifted Black students enrolled in White colleges. Despite the opportunity of Black students to attend White colleges, many continue to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities, along with White and other minority students.
Some observers argue that when Blacks enroll in White colleges and universities, they do not enjoy the same advantages in gaining elected leadership positions as they may have had at an HCBU. Conversely, one may argue that the campus environments at White institutions may be a better representation of America. Also, many Black students who have opted to enroll in White colleges have taken certain elements found on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, such as Black fraternities and sororities, onto those campuses.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities fare well when rated against similarly classified White colleges, but ratings among the HBCUs are constantly changing. In 1977, Butler rated the top HBCUs as Tuskegee, Talladega, and Morehouse universities. In 2009, U.S. News & World Report listed its top 10 HBCUs in the following order: Spelman, Howard, Morehouse, Hampton, Fisk, Tuskegee, Claflin, Dillard, Xavier, and Johnson C. Smith.
Even as debate and concerns surface about low college graduation rates for African American students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, these institutions, in general, have a bright future. Not surprisingly, the public Historically Black Colleges and Universities are in better financial shape than the private colleges, many of which are having difficulty with fund-raising and recruiting more students who can afford the cost of attending a private college or university with a higher tuition cost than public HBCUs. Still, the top academically rated private Historically Black Colleges and Universities will continue to attract African American students along with the public HBCUs.
Frank Brown

See also Morrill Acts
Further Readings
Allen, W. R. (1992). The color of success: African- American college student outcomes at predominantly white and historically black college. Harvard Educational Review, 6(2), 26–44.
Black student college graduation rates inch higher but a large racial gap persists. (2007). Journal of Black Higher Education. Retrieved April 24, 2009, from http://www.jbhe.com/preview/winter07preview.html
Brown, F., & Stent, M. D. (1977). Minorities enrolled in institutions of higher education. New York: Praeger Press.
Brown, M. C., II. (1999). The quest to define collegiate desegregation: Black colleges, Title VI compliance, and post-Adams litigation. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
Browning, J., & Williams, J. B. (1978). History and goals of black institutions of higher learning. In C. V. Willie & R. R. Edmonds (Eds.), Black colleges in America: Challenge, development, and survival (pp. 127–142). New York: Teachers College Press.
Butler, A. L. J. (1977). The distinctive black college: Talladega, Tuskegee and Morehouse. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.
Crossland, F. E. (1971). Minority access to college: A Ford Foundation report. New York: Schocken Books.
Davis, M. D., & Clark, H. R. (1994). Thurgood Marshall: Warrior at the bar, rebel on the bench. New York: Citadel Press.
Freeman, K. (1999). HBCs or PWIs? African American high school students’ consideration of higher education institution types. The Review of Higher Education, 23(1), 91–106.
Hill, S. (1985). Traditionally black institutions of higher education: Their development and status: 1860 to 1982. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
List of HBCUs. (n.d.). U.S. Department of Education, The White House Initiative Office on HBCUs. Retrieved May 20, 2009, from http://www.ed.gov/about/inits/list/whhbcu/edlite-list.html
Myrdal, G. (1944). An American dilemma: The negro problem and modern democracy. New York: Harper & Row.
U.S. Department of Education. (2007). Digest of educational statistics. Washington, DC: Author.
Legal Citations
Agricultural College Act of 1890 (Second Morrill Land Grant Act), ch. 841, 26 Stat. 417, 7 U.S.C. §§ 322 et seq.
Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, 339 U.S. 637 (1950).
Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, ch. 130, 12 Stat. 503, 7 U.S.C. §§ 301 et seq.
Sweatt v. Painter, 339 U.S. 629 (1950).