The History of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Access to a quality college education was virtually nonexistent for African Americans prior to the Civil War. The few people who did get the privilege to go to college often studied in hostile and informal settings. Others were forced to teach themselves entirely if they wanted to further their education.

Historically black colleges and universities, also known as “HBCUs,” are defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965 as “any historically black college or university established prior to 1694, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary of Education.”


The original Morrill Land-Grant Act allocated federal lands to the states for the purpose of opening educational facilities to educate scientists, teachers, and farmers. Initially, few were open or inviting to blacks, especially in the South. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were founded when the second Morrill Act of 1890 required states, especially former confederate states, to provide land-grants for schools for black students. The first colleges for African Americans were born, thanks to the efforts of black churches and the support of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association. Between 1861 and 1900, more than 90 schools were established for African Americans to pursue higher education. In 1865, Shaw University was the first one founded after the Civil War, in Raleigh, North Carolina. Afterwards, schools like Howard University, Hampton University, Morehouse College, and Talladega College were established.

A Look at Early African American Education

Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois were two graduates from the first generation of students to attend these new HBCUs. Each went to different institutions, and had unique viewpoints.

Washington was a freed slave from Virginia, and attended the Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute. He found that Hampton focused its efforts on preparing young blacks throughout the South for jobs in skilled trades. Eventually, Washington became an apprentice of Hampton’s president and decided to lead his own school after earning his college degree. That’s when Tuskegee Institute was born. This institution quickly became famous for its practical curriculum and focus on preparing blacks for mechanical and agricultural trades. Washington became well-known among blacks and whites as the proponent of black advancement through racial conciliation and vocational training. He believed that the best way for freed slaves and blacks to attain equality in the U.S. was through the accumulation of wealth, power, and respect via hard work in practical trades.

W.E.B. DuBois was raised in Massachusetts and exposed to segregation during his undergraduate years at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He believed that it was important for blacks to receive training not only in the vocational fields, but also in the liberal arts. DuBois felt that Washington’s emphasis on vocational training only further perpetrated the severity of slavery. In order to truly reach equality, he thought, blacks would need to be allowed to also study the arts and science, and develop their own sense of purpose. From there, they’d become true well-rounded leaders and teachers for the next generation.

Today, a plethora of universities and colleges embrace both ways of thinking. Young blacks are able to receive useful technical training with a splash of liberal arts.

HBCUs Gain Credibility

Over time, many students were enrolled in HBCUs. With that came financial support from the government, as well as individual philanthropists like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. In 1928, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools finally began formally surveying and accrediting these institutions.

A Rocky Road

Unfortunately, the Great Depression and World War II eventually left numerous black colleges in a financial crisis. Most land-grant HBCUs were underfunded compared to traditional universities. Private HBCUs were in an even tougher spot. Needless to say, the depression wiped out many of their funds. Fundraising efforts took place, but were difficult and not quite enough to improve education.

In 1943, Dr. Frederick D. Patterson, the president of the Tuskegee Institute stepped in. He published an open letter to the presidents of private HBCUs urging them to band together, share their resources, and help out with fundraising. The following year, the United Negro College Fund started successfully soliciting donations to private HBCUs.

Presidential Support for HBCUs

Fast forward to 1976, the federal government provided assistance to HBCUs through the Higher Education Act. This is when states were ordered to work actively to integrate institutions without putting HBCUs into further debt or trouble. President Carter, Reagan, and Bush also played substantial roles in helping HBCUs thrive. Firstly, President Carter created a program designed to strengthen and expand the capacity of the historically black college or university. Secondly, President Reagan put in place an executive order with the goal of further reversing the negative effects of previous discriminatory treatment toward black colleges. Finally, President Bush also issued an executive order, building off of Reagan’s original order and establishing a commission in the Department of Education responsible for advising the president on topics regarding historically black institutions.

Studying at an HBCU Today

HBCUs have come a long way. These days, more black students graduate from one than they would at a predominantly white university. They get much more personalized social and academic support, which helps them thrive and encourages active learning. HBCUs must be preserved over time because they were an integral part of our history allowing black students to obtain higher education when no other colleges would, and will continue being essential for the future.