Should the U.S. Provide Reparations? Start With HBCUs

A recent report revealed that states owe billions of dollars to HBCUs due to underfunding. Whether this was intentional or accidental, a solution to repair harm may come in the form of reparations.
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Pamela “Safisha Nzingha” Hill, Ph.D.
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For over 20 years, Pamela "Safisha Nzingha" Hill, Ph.D., has worked in higher education in both student development and academic affairs. Dr. Hill is a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant; Afrocentric scholar; activist; journalist; educator; ...
Published on December 12, 2023
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  • HBCUs have been purposefully underfunded by 16 U.S. states over the last 30 years.
  • Reparations have historically been paid to atone for wrongdoing against marginalized groups, but this hasn’t always benefitted Black people.
  • Reparations must directly benefit Black students and HBCUs that suffered from decades of neglect by federal and state governments.

Earlier this year, the Department of Education reported that land grant, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in 16 states have been underfunded by $12.6 billion over the last 30 years. A joint letter from the Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack directed governors in these states to address the funding disparities in their budgets over the course of several years or commit to a substantial allocation of a two-to-one match to bring parity in funding.

While the reports suggest that HBCUs were underfunded for 30 years, it can be easily argued that these institutions have never been adequately funded since their inception. The purposeful underfunding of HBCUs has stifled the growth of many of these institutions by failing to provide funds that would have benefited these schools in a variety of educational areas.

Not only should additional funding be provided to support the vitality of HBCUs, but the admission of neglect from the federal and state governments also suggests a case should be made for reparations to address years of harm and ensure the future financial stability of HBCUs.

The Case for Reparations

When the Morrill Act of 1890 was passed, not only were land grant HBCUs established to provide educational opportunities to Black students who were denied admission to majority-white institutions, but states were required to provide funding to these institutions to match the federal funds that other state land grant colleges received.

Unfortunately, many states did not adequately fund HBCUs and gave a majority of funding to flagship institutions that were nearly all white at the time. This boost in funding from state governments allowed predominantly white institutions (PWIs) to establish themselves as prominent institutions in the areas of research and technology.

Meanwhile, HBCUs have been forced to operate on shoestring budgets. The Association of Public and Land-Grant University reported that between 2010 and 2012, 61% of 1890 land grant universities did not receive full one-to-one matching funds for extension or research funding, totaling nearly $31 million in underfunding.

Due to the years of gross underfunding, there has been some public discussion about whether HBCUs should receive reparations. Unfortunately, due to the history of enslavement of Black and African people, reparations have become a complicated and taboo topic to address.

Historically, reparations have been linked to the enslavement of African people. In 1865, Union General William T. Sherman drafted Special Field Order 15, which mandated that land seized in Georgia and South Carolina by Confederate soldiers be split up among formerly enslaved people by lots of 40 acres and a mule. However, after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the land assigned to Black families in the form of reparations was taken back and given to Confederate families.

The federal government has been resistant to the idea of reparations for descendants of enslaved Africans. However, there is a historical precedent for the federal government atoning for its atrocities by providing monetary payment to specific marginalized groups. The U.S. government awarded surviving Japanese Americans detained in internment camps during World War II $20,000 each, for example.

In an interview with BestColleges, Dr. Raymond Winbush, author of “Should America Pay? Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations,” asserted that HBCUs should receive reparations because each institution was established to combat the racism that governed higher education prior to Brown v. Board of Education. He further stated that PWIs that participated in the practiced racism against Black people, such as Harvard and Yale, for example, should pay reparations.

Dr. Winbush is correct in his assessment, specifically because many Ivy League institutions participated in the slave trade, owned plantations, and benefited from the labor of enslaved Africans. In some cases, these campuses were literally built by enslaved people.

Some may still view reparations as a taboo topic because of the association with slavery in the U.S. However, if we can see the ways additional funding has spurred the growth of PWIs, we should consider reparations as a viable solution for addressing the decades-long underfunding of HBCUs.

Benefits to Reparations

The millions of state dollars owed to HBCUs could significantly impact their ability to expand and improve the quality of academic programs, upgrade campus infrastructure, and increase research opportunities.

In an interview with BestColleges, Dr. Jelani Favors, Director of the Center of Excellence for Social Justice at North Carolina A&T University (NC A&T), spoke about the historic underfunding of HBCUs and suggested that there has been a pattern of separate and unequal funding for more than 100 years.

According to Favors, With the appropriate funding, HBCUs could be miles ahead. At NC A&T specifically, the $2.1 billion would've allowed them to hire faculty and administrators, create new colleges, departments, and programs, and perhaps even create a medical school. Imagine what could take place if resources were poured into [HBCUs] in the same way they've been poured into PWIs? We talk about these issues of reparations — this is an extension of that.

We can see that increased funding — from prominent alumni and state governments — has directly led to the success of the U.S.’s most prestigious institutions. To be clear, HBCUs are prestigious institutions. But to level the playing field between PWIs and HBCUs, additional funding and, potentially, backpay are needed. More money would be a huge step forward for HBCUs and their students.

Challenges to Consider

Recently, California became the first state to launch a reparations program to address the systemic marginalization of Black communities. However, the legality of such programs was immediately questioned. Additionally, reparations remain hugely unpopular, primarily among white Americans and conservative politicians.

Some states may attempt to suggest that any funds they have already allocated to HBCUs are reparations in an effort to avoid taking responsibility for decades of underfunding. However, if such funds were prescribed without acknowledging the harm that was done by federal and state governments, HBCU leaders should be vocal in pointing this out.

There are also those who are cautious about the idea of reparations for HBCUs. BestColleges spoke with Cranston Alkebulan, a Prairie View A&M University graduate and former co-chair of the Dallas Chapter of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA).

In our interview, Alkebulan stated that reparations should be awarded more on an individual basis and directly benefit the descendants of enslaved Africans. He further suggests, HBCUs are no longer exclusively Black, and if those whose ancestors were historically responsible for and benefited from slavery became the benefactors of reparations, challenges can and will arise.

Furthermore, the hope is that the additional funding for HBCUs would go toward increasing access and financial support for HBCU students, not only to the institutions more broadly. One of the components of reparations outlined by N’COBRA is linked to education, but more specifically in the form of scholarships for individual Black students.

Regardless of the risk, state government officials and institutional leaders should and must have the conversation, if nothing else, to address what went wrong and what we can do better so that HBCUs do not struggle in the future.

Giving HBCUs What They Are Owed

Despite decades of underfunding, HBCUs remain resilient and continue to fulfill their mission of educating Black college students. However, this doesn’t negate the fact that HBCUs have been owed billions of dollars since the inception of HBCUs in the U.S.

The 16 states that failed to allocate required match funding to HBCUs must commit to paying what is owed. Fortunately, we are seeing the possibility for reparations at colleges around the country, including Georgetown University, which has already committed $27 million for selling 272 enslaved Black people.

Conversely, it is up to administrators, alumni, students, and supporters of HBCUs to be vocal in demanding equity and accountability in funding from state and federal governments, encouraging state politicians to proactively support these efforts.

While reparations will not completely solve the historical and current challenges faced by HBCUs, they certainly can contribute to the educational success of Black students at these institutions and send a strong message of atonement.