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How HBCUs Have Always Led the Way for Social Change

Some critics question if historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s) are still relevant and necessary in the 21st century. But to truly understand their importance, we need to look at the complicated history behind them. The story of HBCUs has often reflected the racial injustices that blacks faced at the hands of many whites. And the campuses of HBCUs were often the starting point for social change demands. Students led non-violent sit-ins, protests, and boycotts to demand equal rights and risked their lives to change racist policies. In this two-part series, The HBCU Community Development Action Coalition (CDAC) will explore their tremendous contributions to the fight for equality and how HBCU’s still play an essential role in today’s society.

But first, let’s look at some facts:

  • There are 107 HBCUs with more than 228,000 students enrolled.

  • The first HBCU was The Institute for Colored Youth and was founded in Cheyney, Pennsylvania in 1837.

  • HBCUs have provided undergraduate training for three fourths of all black persons holding a doctorate degree; three fourths of all black officers in the armed forces; and four fifths of all black federal judges.

The Beginning:

Now, the history. During slavery, black Americans in the South were denied an education. In fact, anyone teaching a black person to read could be fined and/or go to jail. If a slave was caught trying to teach themselves, the consequences were brutal. As Kimberly Crenshaw, the Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum stated, “An educated black population could not be an enslaved black population.” Therefore, there were many people that had a vested interest in keeping blacks uneducated.

Although the first HBCU was founded in 1837, the number of schools began to expand after the Civil War. Many of them were established with the support of black churches and the American Missionary Association as well as the Freedmen’s Bureau. The second Morrill Act of 1890 also required states—especially former confederate states—to provide land-grants for institutions for black students if admission was not allowed elsewhere. As a result, the founding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) began in earnest. The schools primarily taught primary education at that point as well as vocational courses. By the late 1800’s there were over 86 black colleges. However, whites and especially former plantation owners that relied on cheap black labor saw a danger in teaching blacks anything that could make them question their place in society. As a result, they started to resort to extremely violent means to drive teachers away and to destroy many black colleges. Between 1866 and 1972, over 20,000 people were killed because of the educational equity quest.

Yet, despite the ongoing violence and the limited resources, black colleges survived. Prominent leaders from the north visited some of these colleges such as General Otis O. Howard who was a Northern general during the Civil War and later became the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau. He asked students what he should tell northerners about the plight of southern blacks. 13-year-old Richard Robert Wright rose and said, “Sir, tell them we are rising.” That exchange inspired a once-famous poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, called "Howard at Atlanta".

Evolving Philosophy

As mentioned previously, many black colleges focused primarily on teaching trade courses. They were not intended to be higher learning institutions. In fact, most of the schools at the time had white administrators and mostly white teachers. However, some black leaders start promoting the idea that these colleges should be teaching secondary educational courses such law, science, history and medicine. They believed that was the only way for blacks to take their rightful and equal place in society.

So, becomes the starting point for a clash of philosophies between two famous black leaders. Booker T. Washington had recently been appointed to run The Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, today’s Tuskegee University. His appointment made him one of the few African Americans to run a black college. However, Washington only promoted a curriculum of vocational courses. He believed that the path forward for African Americans was self-improvement through an attempt to “dignify and glorify common labor.” He also believed in the idea of segregation. At a speech before a largely white audience in Atlanta, he states, “The wisest of my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the most extreme folly and that progress in the enjoyment of all the privileges that will come to us must be the result of severe and constant struggle rather than artificial forcing. The opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory just now is worth infinitely more than to spend a dollar in an opera house." Thereby he reassures the white population that blacks are not a threat and will not push for civil rights.

This is in direct conflict with the beliefs of another famous black leader, W.E.B. Du Bois, who repudiated what he called “The Atlanta Compromise” in a chapter of his famous 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk.” Opposition to Washington’s views on race Du Bois led the Niagara Movement (1905-1909), which laid the foundation for the NAACP in 1909. So, while Washington is still recognized as an incredibly accomplished educator who became an advisor to two American Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Howard Taft, his legacy has become somewhat complicated because of his supporting views on segregation. By the time he died in 1915, his views were largely criticized and leaders like Du Bois were inspiring ideas that would later form the foundation for the civil rights movement.

In part two of our series, HBCU CDAC will explore how the “Declaration of Principles” drafted by Du Bois and other founding members of the Niagara Movement became a fundamental doctrine for political and social equality for African Americans. Those principles went on to greatly influence the black population, and especially students of HBCUs, to became advocates for social change. And equally important, the tremendous legacy of HBCUs has resulted in them continuing to be a driving force for social and economic equity for all Black Americans.

To read more HBCU blogs, click here

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