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Leadership Development, Personal Growth, NSLS Blog

A History of America's Historically Black Colleges and Universities

By Corey Andrew Powell

In the landscape of higher education, the acronym "HBCU" is unfamiliar to some. For others, it immediately evokes a sense of regality and nearly two hundred years of pride, tenacity, tradition, and academic excellence among Black people.

Highly respected and revered, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) have played an essential role in the education of African Americans since the 19th century. Although classified as "all-Black" universities, excluding non-Black applicants was not a factor in their enrollment structure.

It may seem unfathomable that Black students were once denied acceptance into America's leading Ivy League universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Columbia, and more. But that was the standard before the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

In response to the limited higher education offerings for Black students, the first HBCU was founded in Pennsylvania by Richard Humphreys in 1837 as the African Institute (now Cheyney University). Its goal was to provide free training in job-ready skills to African Americans. Along with religion and industrial arts, students were also taught reading, writing, and fundamental math.

Similar institutions emerged for African American citizens and an alliance of proud Black educators grew. These educators recognized the great necessity of providing standard academic services and advanced learning opportunities to African Americans.

As more HBCUs opened, African Americans seized the opportunity to shine, reject stereotypes, and show they could perform at the same educational level as their peers of other ethnicities.

For nearly two centuries, these universities evolved to prominence comparable to the schools that had systematically refused enrollment to Black students.

HBCUs would grow to boast extraordinary success in creating global-centric competitive college degree studies and educating the brightest students from America and abroad. Today, these institutions are regarded as the Black Ivy League, which include:

  • Dillard University

  • Fisk University

  • Hampton University

  • Howard University

  • Morehouse College

  • Spelman College

  • Tuskegee University

  • Clark Atlanta University

Black History Month is a time to honor the legacy and contributions of HBCUs, which have produced some of the world's most successful and influential people, such as:

  • Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison (Howard University)

  • Media Mogul Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University)

  • Oscar-nominated actor Samuel Jackson (Morehouse College)

  • Tony/Emmy-winning sisters Debbi Allen and Phylicia Rashad (Howard University)

  • And other notable names

It's crucial to note the history of HBCUs is deeply rooted in the slave trade. As a condition of their forced labor, enslaved people were forbidden to learn how to read and write. Keeping them illiterate helped maintain the power structure over their subordinates.

Even after slavery ended, states like Alabama and Virginia made it illegal to educate former slaves. Despite these obstacles and the additional years of segregation and Jim Crow, HBCUs have flourished, granting Black students access to the elite academic experiences they were once denied.

These institutions have been instrumental in providing quality education and creating a pathway for African American leaders and every qualifying student to succeed in their chosen fields.

Interested to learn more? Read about our stance on diversity, equity, and inclusion.