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A Black History Education Quilt Special
Note: Portion of Lane under construction
A Short History of Black Colleges
By Arelya J. Mitchell, Editor-in-Chief
The Mid-South Tribune
And the Black Information Highway
Historically Black Colleges and Universities known as “HBCUs” have the distinction in America’s education system as being uniquely founded and established solely upon race. Yet, if a White student or any other ethnic group wanted to attend an HBCU, he/she was allowed to do so. Not the same could be accorded to mainstream institutions of higher learning in allowing Blacks this privilege—if not right.
Even though there were exclusive women’s colleges, still Black women could not attend these colleges which were not founded for Black females. In other words, when such institutions as Spelman and later Bennett came into being they were exclusively for Black women because Black women being Black were not allowed to attend the Radcliffes, Smiths, and Bryn Mawrs or even what is now the Mississippi University for Women (known as the “W”) which was for prominent southern blueblood belles in its day. When the late Dr. Dorothy Height, president of America’s oldest African American women’s organization, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), wanted to attend Barnard (New York), she could not do so because Barnard had its quota of accepting only two Black women a year. She had to head for Howard University (Washington, D.C.)
All this is to say that HBCUs were established on the concept of segregation or America’s apartheid.
Passage of the 1964 Civil Rights bill transcended the higher education institutions at the expense of endangering Black colleges and universities; thus, the reason for federal legislation that would preserve HBCUs in 1965 when legislation was passed not only to define what an HBCU was but to preserve them with some federal funding. In an almost dunce-like fashion an HBCU was defined as a college that taught Black students. Still, legislation has not curtailed the debate of whether HBCUs are needed and if they should indeed be allowed to die a natural death as did the DoDo bird.
Are HBCUs a dying pedagogic breed? Should they die due to capitalism—that ‘hidden hand’ of Adam Smith that dictates that only the economic fit should be allowed to survive? Many HBCUs have had hardships in raising capital, which has always been. Once the bastion of gifted sportsmen, they have seen their ‘young, gifted, and black’ athletes courted by mainstream schools with higher NCAA credentials. Yet, if one really were to do a longitudinal study, one might find out how these Black athletes fared. It is not uncommon that a star black athlete who made millions for their respective mainstream column to end up at jobless and at the bottom of glory; whereas, a star white athlete would apt to be taken care of with a job or career to see through a post-athlete career. Granted it is not always the fault of the mainstream institution of higher learning when a black athlete ends up not able to cope with life, but when many are given coursework on the level of basket weaving, it doesn’t help.
HBCUs have seen their ‘young, gifted, and black’ scholars flock to mainstream schools to have a better shot of sliding onto first base into Corporate America holding dearly onto pedigree degrees from such blueblood colleges as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Vassar, etc. rather than Howard, Morehouse, Fisk, Tuskegee, Spelman, Bennett, Rust, Emory, LeMoyne-Owen, or Bethune-Cookman. This is not to say that Black students should not attend these Ivy League or near-Ivy League institutions, but should it be done as a means to drive Black institutions into Black History? Into oblivion?
To reemphasize: Nowhere in America’s history were there established institutions of higher learning for any other ethnic group. There were no HOCUs – Historically Oriental Colleges and Universities, or HCCUs – Historically Chinese American Colleges and Universities, or HHCUs – Historically Hispanic Colleges and Universities, or HNACUs – Historically Native American Colleges and Universities, or HICUs—Historically Immigrant Colleges and Universities. And it is especially of note that when the Irish were on the bottom of the totem pole and had ‘No Irish Allowed’ or ‘No Irish or Dogs Allowed’ signs posted to greet them or for that matter in spite of the Irish being called ‘White niggers’ and the fact that the Paddy Wagon was named thus because it was used to cart Irishmen off to jail (as ‘Paddy’ was a popular Irish male name), there were never any HICUs—Historically Irish Colleges and Universities—established. The Kennedys, America’s most famous Irish clan, still could get into a Harvard in spite of the Irish being part of the ‘white trash’ stigma.
Only America’s Black citizens were first and formally denied the right to learn to read and write by law. To teach a slave to read and write was a crime and punishment for that crime was built into the very fabric of the Rule of Law. In spite of the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments making them a bona fied part of the citizenry was there still major apprehension in allowing Blacks and Whites to learn together (read ‘Separate by Equal’); thus, the founding of Black colleges began to sprout after the Civil War because of White sympathizers, former abolitionists, white churches in the spirit of missionaries, and dedicated free Blacks themselves took up the educational endeavor of teaching Blacks to ‘read and write’.
To reiterate, after Blacks had ‘overcome’ a hundred years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, black colleges and universities were being summarily dismantled until some yelled ‘foul play’ and federal legislation was introduced in 1965 to preserve these African American institutions. Instead of these institutions being enhanced and embraced as part of America’s Institutions of Higher Learning fabric, they were stigmatized as not good enough and; therefore, not needed. Lest one forget, these were the institutions that laid the foundation of what is known today as African American middle class which was based on the value of education and not on wealth simply because there was no wealth upon which to base it in the Black populace. These were the institutions that produced Black teachers en masse; these were the institutions that produced the leadership (mainly educated ministers) that ushered in the Civil Rights movement that begat a quasi-black economic movement. Also, one must remember that most HBCUs started in the basements or rooms of Black churches, thus, they have continued to survive because of this Black church ‘root’.
Many Blacks can recall that even if a Black person did not get a chance to go to school, he/she instilled in their children this value of education and made the commitment to make sure their children went to school and graduated—even if they themselves never got the opportunity. Bottom line: Education was the foundation of Black economic growth. NOT MONEY.
According to the National Association of HBCU, the first Black college was the African Institute, founded in February of 1837 and was renamed the Institute of Coloured Youth. Today the Institute is Cheyney University located in Cheyney, Pennsylvania. And it seemed only fitting that the college was founded by a Quaker, Richard Humphreys. Quakers, of course, played heavily in freeing slaves and in providing the ‘routes’ on the Underground Railroad. One must also remember that Black colleges were not founded as ‘colleges’ per se but rather as just a place for educating Black people who would in turn become teachers, the traditional objective of most Black colleges. Cheyney eventually evolved into an institute of higher learning in 1913 when it gave out its first formal degrees-- that is something that was in writing to actually show that their students had indeed graduated.
Another institute of higher learning that has perhaps been paid too little attention to during any Black History Month celebration is Berea College, which was founded by an abolitionist as an ‘integrated’ institution at the height of slavery in a slave-holding state, Kentucky. This remains an astonishing accomplishment that simply gets very little acknowledgement and respect. This institute of higher learning was founded by John Gregg Fee in 1855 under the motto: “God has made of one blood all nations of men.” In 1859, Fee along with other teachers was forced out of a church where only a room served as the entire school. Anti-black sentiments were running high and within two years the Civil War began. Still it is remarkable if not downright a miraculous that Berea remained intact from 1855 to 1859. In 1866, a year after the War, Berea continued to operate as an integrated model and according to records, it had a pupil population of 96 Blacks and 91 whites. In 1873, it distributed its first bachelor’s degrees, which of course included Blacks.
In 1901, Fee died; and in 1903 the Kentucky legislature passed what became known as the Day Law which brought down the ‘integrated’ model with a Supreme Court ‘blessing’ that legitimized what the Kentucky legislature had done. It was not until 1950 when the integration of colleges became legitimate that Berea again took up scholastic arms and began matriculating both Blacks and whites. This 1950 victory for Berea could perhaps be seen as an omen to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education. Both pieces of legislation set the model for integration of America’s school system on both the elementary and higher learning levels in theory but not in practice.
Indeed, if the Berea College ‘integrated’ model for higher learning had remained intact and followed, there would be no need for the “Should Black Colleges Exist?” question that came about in full force after the 1964 Civil Rights bill was signed, sealed and delivered. Unlike what was the Irish Question in terms of amalgamating Irish into mainstream America and into its education system, the Black Education Question has not fully been answered.
As stated earlier, during the 1960’s Black colleges began to fight for their existence, as some state legislatures thought it perfectly all right to begin dismantling Black colleges and to outright give college funds designated for black colleges to white universities.
The founding history of Black colleges would make for dynamic history because what is usually left out is that Blacks themselves contributed heavily financially and ‘spiritually’ to these colleges. To reiterate, it is well known that these institutions of higher learning were founded in the humbleness of one-room shacks, basements, under the auspices of white religious denominations and Freedmen Bureaus. Yes, these were mainly white Northern abolitionists who descended on the South to teach newly freed slaves very much in the same spirit of the white Northern freedom riders who descended a hundred years later to teach Jim Crow-free Blacks on the benefits of integration. But like in the mid- 1960s, Black citizens in the mid-1860s took a gigantic role in freeing themselves by educating themselves.
As mentioned earlier, the purpose of founding Black colleges was to produce a teaching population that could in turn teach other Blacks, denoting that Blacks did not fully trust whites to see to educating newly freed Blacks.
In his 1969 study entitled “The Evolution of the Negro College” (published by Arno Press and the New York Times), Dwight Oliver Wendell Holmes pointed out how newly freed slaves took it upon themselves the task of seeing that their own were educated by their own. Holmes says flat out that Blacks preferred that Blacks teach Blacks… “This was done partly due to the pride of the race in having their members elevated to positions which to them seemed important and influential, and partly to the feeling of the white southerner that since Negro schools were inevitable, Negro teachers were preferable to white teachers from the North.”
Let is also be lauded that Black Civil War soldiers contributed to what would become HBCUs. The 62nd and 65th regiments raised $6,325 for Lincoln Institute which is known today as Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. Among Black church affiliates that maintained schools were the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (CME), and the Negro Baptist Conventions.
The original building for Talladega College (founded in 1867 in Talladega, Alabama) was erected by then slaves who had built it as an elitist school for White boys and was later used as a prison for Yankee soldiers.
Founded by two white women in 1881, Spelman College began in the basement of a Black church in Atlanta, Georgia. It was then known as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, and only after Sophia B. Packer, who founded the school along with Harriet Giles, met John D. Rockefeller was the school renamed Spelman in honor of his wife, Laura Spelman, seeing that Rockefeller had made a more than generous donation to keep this African American school for women afloat, but a well worth addendum to the Rockefeller connection is the fact that it was Blacks who forked over half of a $5,000 price sticker for the former Union barracks that would serve as a permanent location for Spelman. The Black Baptists of Georgia put up $3,000; other Black citizens gave a total of $1,300, leaving Rockefeller to put up a balance of $700. Again, this more than indicates that Blacks took a vital interest in educating themselves.
It cannot be said enough times how much of a role the Black church played in the history of Black colleges. Howell writes in his study: “As a result of a survey of Negro Colleges made in 1926 and 1927 by the United States Bureau of Education, the Negro denominations were found to have done so well in the support of their institutions of higher learning as to be rated in this respect above the Northern white denominations maintaining colleges for Negroes.”
Even when white church affiliates pulled out or wanted to pull out, Black churches came to the rescue as in the case of Wilberforce University, which was established in Ohio in 1856. The school, named in honor of English abolitionist William Wilberforce, was about to shut its doors in 1863 when then Cincinnati Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church no longer felt a need for it. The church offered to sell it to the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) for $10,000. Under Bishop Daniel A. Payne, the church raised the money and Payne became president, serving 13 years.
In fact, the AME helped to found and maintain the operation of several Black colleges, among them Allen University (Columbia, South Carolina,1870), Paul Quinn College (Waco, Texas, 1881), Edward Waters College (Jacksonville, Florida, 1883), Morris Brown College (Atlanta, GA), 1885 and Shorter College (Little Rock, Arkansas, 1886).
On a similar note, at a General Conference held in 1870 in Memphis, Tennessee, the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) in America went about its task of seeing to Black education on a higher level. Among the colleges associated with the CME are: Lane College (Jackson, Tennessee, 1878), Paine College (Augusta, Georgia, 1882), Texas College (Tyler, Texas 1894), and Miles Memorial College (Birmingham, Alabama in 1902). It is interesting to note that Lane College was founded as the Colored Methodist Episcopal Institute and Lane Institute.
According to Holmes: “By 1916 the Negro Baptist Conventions maintained 110 schools with 474 teachers…These schools were distributed among 13 states of the South and the District of Columbia.”
But no matter how these colleges were for Black students, most—almost close to 100 percent did not have Black presidents and that frustration erupted in student protest in the 1920’s.
W.E.B. Dubois lent his support to these students in their right to protest for Black college presidents. One of the most notable protests on campus was on the Fisk University (founded 1866) campus in Nashville, Tennessee. In his book, “The New Negro on Campus: Black College Rebellions of the 1920s”, which documents these now little known protests, Raymond Wolters recalls how Fisk students chanted DuBois’ name as they shut down classes to get their first African American president. Wolters writes how the Nashville Blacks came together: “The support given by members of the local Black community undoubtedly contributed to the effectiveness of the student strike. In a significant display of solidarity across generational lines, the Negro Board of Trade, composed of Nashville’s leading black businessmen, established a conciliation committee that tried to persuade [President Fayette Avery] McKenzie to grant the students’ demands.” Not only did the Nashville Black community support the strikes but fellow Black college alumni clubs such as those from Hampton (founded 1868 in Hampton, Virginia), the New York Fisk Club, Louisville Fisk Club, Chicago Fisk Club—among others. Perhaps most notable was Howard University (founded 1867) which got its first Black president in the person of John M. Langston who became president upon the 1873 resignation of General Oliver O. Howard for whom the college was named. Langston had to give up the presidency because contributions dried up once he took office. Howard’s second Black president, Dr. Rev. Mordecai W. Johnson, did not take office until 1926, a year after the Fisk protest. Yet, it took Fisk until 1947 to get its first Black president, Charles Spurgeon Johnson, even though it was Fisk that was the catalyst in Black colleges getting Black presidents—a fact that deserves more acknowledgment.
It was still a rarity to see a Black president heading a Black college even in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and now that it is practically a norm, these Black college presidents’ complaint pretty much follows in the same manner as Langston in that attracting funds has become harder and harder.
Title III of the Higher Learning Act of 1965 was introduced to preserve the Historical Black Colleges and Universities by designating that any college founded before 1964 would be known as an HBCU. According to the National Association of HBC, there are only 105 Black colleges and universities left, and only a handful of them that were founded either before the Civil War or shortly after the Civil War. Among this handful are: Rust College (originally called Shaw University, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, 1866)), Howard University (Washington, D.C., 1866), Shaw University (Raleigh, North Carolina,1865), St. Augustine College (Raleigh, North Carolina, 1867), Lincoln University (founded by the Presbyterians in Pennsylvania in 1854), Lincoln University (Jefferson City, Missouri, 1866), Wilberforce (Ohio, 1856).
Also, today is a fact that is seldom pointed out which is that there are several Black colleges where white students have begun to attend in sizable numbers: Among them are Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri; Lane University in Jackson, Tennessee, and Tennessee State University in Nashville. There too seems to be a trend – though unscientifically proven at this point—or perhaps it should be termed chatter for now that Black students are beginning to return to predominantly Black colleges, where numerous Black presidents are echoing the sentiments of LeMoyne-Owen (Memphis, TN, 1871) president Johnnie B. Watson, LL.D and Prairie View A&M College (Prairie View, Texas, 1876) president, Dr. George C. Wright both of whom expressed that because of the smaller classroom size and dedication, Black students receive more attention and this prepares them to go on to a larger university to pursue a Master’s Degree or Ph.D. It lays the foundation, Wright had described it.
As the 21st century stretches, it would be a better argument that Black colleges should be given their due respect and due history in America’s educational fabric to make a much comfortable quilt in education. They should be allowed to grow and be preserved to further America’s role in a highly global competitive market.
Yet, ironically what remains is a reality check which Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who serves under President Barack Obama, America’s first African American president, stated in an October 2010 speech: “As you know, President Obama has set an ambitious goal for the nation. He wants America to again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. That goal is the North Star for all of our education efforts. Reaching it will require institutions of higher education to dramatically boost college completion—by the end of the decade, our national college degree attainment rate must rise from 40 percent to 60 percent… As I said last September, HBCUs will—and absolutely must—play a critical leadership role in meeting this challenge. This is not just about access—this is about attainment. It is true that HBCUs have been under-resourced for decades. And no one knows the obstacles confronting HBCUs better than you. At too many HBCUs, endowments are undercapitalized. Faculty salaries are too low. Financial aid is inadequate. Facilities are deteriorating. Sadly, far too few students arrive on campus ready for college coursework—and far too many students drop out without earning a degree. As Cordell Wynn, the former president of Stillman College, said of HBCUs, ‘no other institution of higher learning has had to do so much, for so many, with so little’."