The Role and Legacy of HBCUs in Higher Education

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  • HBCUs were founded in the 19th century to provide Black Americans with a route to higher ed.
  • It wasn't until the 1960s that more majority-white colleges began admitting Black students.
  • Many civil rights leaders attended HBCUs, including Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois.
  • Today, HBCUs continue to help Black students thrive academically and professionally.

Next week, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will become the first graduate of a historically Black university to stand on the inaugural platform and take a Constitutional oath.

When Harris arrived at Howard University to study political science and economics in the 1980s, few could have guessed she would become the nation's first female, Black, and Asian American vice president.

As Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick puts it, "Senator Kamala Harris has swung her Howard hammer and shattered the proverbial glass ceiling into pieces that will not be put back together."

Let it be known this day, you do not need a Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Brown degree to be successful. Our Madam Vice President went to @HowardU.

— HU College Democrats (@hucollegedems) November 7, 2020

But what exactly are historically Black colleges and universities? And why are they important today?

According to Dr. Mila Turner, a sociologist and assistant professor at Florida A&M University and Howard alum, "[HBCUs] were once the only option African Americans had for economic and social advancement, since we were not permitted to attend historically white colleges or universities."

Indeed, HBCUs have a long history of educating leaders — and that legacy continues into the 21st century.

What Are HBCUs and Why Were They Created?

Historically Black colleges and universities, more commonly known as HBCUs, are institutions of higher education founded to educate Black students. In the 19th century, when many colleges and universities refused to admit Black applicants, HBCUs offered them a route to higher education.

Most HBCUs are in the South. Some of the most well-known HBCUs include Howard University, Spelman College, Fisk University, and Tuskegee University.

Not all HBCUs are private schools, though many are. Florida A&M University, a public institution in Tallahassee, and North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro hold the spots for the best public HBCUs in U.S. News & World Report's 2021 rankings.

“HBCUs have been integral in providing leadership and role models for the African American community, the nation as a whole, and the globe.”. Source: — Mila Turner, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at Florida A&M University

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In total, the National Center for Education Statistics counts just over 100 HBCUs in the U.S., split nearly equally between public and private schools.

Many HBCUs rank among the most elite educational institutions in the country. For example, the so-called "Black Ivy League" includes colleges like Howard University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, Tuskegee University, and Hampton University. These Black Ivies educate exceptional students at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

While HBCUs were initially established to educate Black students, today HBCUs enroll diverse student bodies. In 2018, non-Black students made up about a quarter of the student population at HBCUs. They also offer more diverse faculty and staff than other colleges and universities.

A Brief History of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Many HBCUs were founded in the 19th century, an era of intense and systemic discrimination against Black Americans. When Harvard University admitted its first Black student in 1847, riots broke out. Several public universities in the South refused to admit Black applicants until over 100 years later in the 1950s and 1960s.

HBCUs had a clear goal from their foundation. "Most HBCUs were founded in the decades after the Civil War to provide opportunities for racial uplift through education," explained Turner. Howard University, for example, dates back to 1867. Established in the wake of the Civil War, Howard aimed to educate newly emancipated Black Americans and their children.

In the more than 150 years since its founding, Howard has granted over 120,000 degrees. The university boasts many influential alumni, including award-winning writers Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison; the first Black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall; and barrier-breaking politicians Elijah Cummings, David Dinkins, and Kamala Harris.

“Many [HBCUs] were initiated to provide agricultural and industrial training, and eventually expanded to offer liberal arts education as well.”. Source: — Mila Turner, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at Florida A&M University

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From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, HBCUs received limited federal support. The Morrill Act of 1890 ordered segregated states to create land-grant schools specifically for Black students excluded from public universities. While the act increased the number of HBCUs, many of these institutions received less funding and support than white universities.

During the era of segregated schools, HBCUs educated the teachers who taught Black children, in addition to graduating generations of Black lawyers, doctors, and scholars.

After the Brown v. Board of Education case and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, higher education gradually began to welcome more Black students; however, many Black learners continued to prefer HBCUs for their educational excellence and commitment to diversity. Today, 70% or more of Black doctors, Black federal judges, and Black doctoral degree-holders earned their degree from an HBCU.

The Impact and Legacy of HBCUs

It's hard to overstate the impact of HBCUs. In an era when exceptional Black students were denied entrance to traditionally white colleges and universities, HBCUs provided an inclusive route to higher education.

Take, for example, the role of HBCUs in the fight for civil rights. Since the beginning, HBCUs have educated civil rights leaders, including Fisk University alum W.E.B. Du Bois, who co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Hampton University alum Booker T. Washington, who went on to found Tuskegee University; and the civil rights activist and Morehouse College alum Martin Luther King Jr.

Similarly, thousands of HBCU students fought for civil rights in their communities. In 1960, four undergraduates at N.C. A&T staged a sit-in at the Woolworth counter in Greensboro to protest segregation. A student at Shaw University founded the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which led the Freedom Rides. Three students from South Carolina State University were killed in 1968 for trying to desegregate bowling alleys in Orangeburg.

"Students at HBCUs across the nation have led the charge in major social movements such as the civil rights movement and even efforts for racial justice more recently," said Turner. "They took extreme risks and occasionally made the ultimate sacrifice — their lives — because they were committed to achieving civil rights for all."

HBCUs in the 21st Century

Historically, HBCUs have served many purposes. In the 19th and 20th centuries, they provided a route to higher education for Black students excluded from majority-white institutions. Pursuing an education helped formerly enslaved people gain independence and improve their economic circumstances. HBCUs also helped Black communities protect their traditions.

Today, HBCUs continue to occupy an important role in higher education. "HBCUs allow African American youth to grow and develop in a protected space, which provides lifelong personal and health benefits," said Turner.

In fact, recent research has shown that Black graduates of HBCUs are 35% less likely to develop warning signs for heart disease, strokes, and diabetes compared to Black graduates of other institutions.

“[HBCUs] are community-oriented and foster relationships among students as well as between students, faculty, alumni, and the surrounding community.”. Source: — Mila Turner, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at Florida A&M University

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The researchers involved in the study point to several possible explanations. For one, HBCUs connect Black undergraduates with mentors, fostering a greater sense of community. HBCUs also limit students' exposure to racial discrimination, which harms physical health.

Many alumni point to HBCUs' ability to foster a sense of belonging as a key part of their education. Howard graduate Erin Keith says, "When you walk across a campus where so many people look like you … and who are proud, you kind of shed your impostor syndrome at the door."

For Kamala Harris, her time at an HBCU taught her valuable lessons she'll carry to the White House. "To lead and thrive you must reject false choices," Harris said in a 2017 commencement speech at Howard.

HBCUs welcomed Black students excluded from other schools and gave them a place to thrive. The men and women who graduated from HBCUs tore down segregation and became leaders. As Harris says, "There is no limit to what you can do when you detect and reject false choices."

Feature Image: Westend61 / Getty Images