BIPOC Voices, History & Now

The History of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Today there are over 100 HBCUs.

words by: Natasha Marsh
Feb 23, 2021

During America’s history of slavery, Black people were not allowed an education and denied access into traditional white schools. Blacks were told to work on the plantations and do odd jobs for their masters and suppressed of anything that could better their lives, education included. In the mid-1800s, African American’s grew fatigued of the control white owners and white leaders had on them and decided to create their own institutions where they could educate freed slaves to read and write — later named Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).


The first of the bunch, Cheyney University, was established in Pennsylvania in 1837. Their mission was to provide elementary and secondary schooling for Black individuals who had never been educated. In fact, it wasn’t until the early-1900s that HBCU’s began offering classes and programs at the postsecondary level. By 1953, HBCU’s had more than 32,000 students at institutions like Fisk University, Hampton Institute, Howard University, Meharry Medical College, Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Tuskegee Institute. The universities were both private and public and were largely located in southern and border states. Currently, there are over 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the U.S., District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.


According to the U.S. Department of Education, “HBCUs are a source of accomplishment and great pride for the African American community as well as the entire nation. The Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, defines an HBCU as: ‘…any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, 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] to be a reliable authority as to the quality of training offered or is, according to such an agency or association, making reasonable progress toward accreditation.’ HBCUs offer all students, regardless of race, an opportunity to develop their skills and talents. These institutions train young people who go on to serve domestically and internationally in the professions as entrepreneurs and in the public and private sectors.”


Throughout it’s history, HBCU’s have become a center for political mobilization and civic activism, it was a direct response to racial discrimination. It’s a place where Black people are affirmed, can openly discuss their thoughts, forge solutions, and create lifelong bonds — while paving their path forward. Today, 75% of all Black doctorate degrees, 75% of all Black officers, 80% of all Black federal judges received their undergraduate training from a HBCU.


Some famous HBCU grads: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Morehouse College), Vice President Kamala Harris (Howard University), Puffy (Howard University), Toni Morrison (Howard University), Taraji P. Henson (Howard University), Samuel L. Jackson (Morehouse College), and Spike Lee (Morehouse College).


Photo via Freddie Allen/AMG/NNPA