The Value of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Dr. Kimberly C. Harper:

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) occupy a unique position in the landscape of higher education. Although black colleges existed in the mid 1800’s they were not focused on teaching post-secondary subjects, and they were not located in slave territories. The first three HBCUs were established in Pennsylvania and Ohio—both free states. The Institute for Colored Youth founded in 1837 in Cheyney, Pa, and Lincoln University founded in 1854 also in Pennsylvania along with Wilberforce University founded in 1865 in Ohio primary’s mission at the time was to educate Black Americans who didn’t have an elementary education. (

As America found itself in the middle of the Civil War the  Morrill Act  of 1862 was passed requiring the federal government to donate 30,000 acres of federal land to states for the purpose of creating public colleges and universities that would teach agriculture and mechanical arts.  This act allowed for the creation of sixty-nine land-grant universities for Caucasian Americans. Because African-Americans were denied entry to white institutions in southern and border states the federal government passed the Second Morrill Act in 1890 which allowed African-Americans to participate in the land-grant system—thus developing colleges and universities for Black Americans. The Morrill Acts played a significant role in helping to establish a distinct purpose and mission for HBCUs. As part of the Second Morrill Act (1890) HBCU’s were founded to provide “a separate college for the colored race” ( This purpose included providing students with an education and teaching the importance of racial uplift.

Now that African American students can potentially attend any college or university they wish, HBCU’s find themselves competing with traditionally white institutions for students, and as ALL colleges and universities work to recruit the best and brightest students, many question the relevance of HBCUs (Chenoweth, 1997); (Lemelle, 2002); (Tatum, 2010). Dr. Beverly Tatum, President of Spelman College, asserts that HBCUs are still relevant when she states, “The relevance and power of an HBCU education in which faculty expectations are high, peer support is strong, and role models are abundant is quantifiable and worthy of preserving and strengthening with investment” (Tatum, 2010).  The need to see one’s self represented as part of the educational experience is one of the cornerstones of the HBCU experience.  For students who enroll in colleges and universities across the country, this need is not always fulfilled at Predominately White Institutions (PWIs) (Allen, 2010); (Arroyo, 2009); (Kynard & Eddy, 2009). Thus, many are asking if HBCUs are still relevant in 2016? And the answer is YES!

The argument that HBCUs are not relevant and or needed within higher education is a short sighted one. HBCU’s provide more than just an education, they provide students with diverse faculty and staff the can assist with emotional and academic development; they provide students with a safe place for unpacking their unique experiences and concerns as it pertains to race, class, and gender; they provide faculty with the opportunity to create and use pedagogies rooted in the African diaspora; and finally they provide local communities with access to academic scholarship, programming, and events.

Diversity is a buzz word that many college presidents love to use; however, few truly understand what diversity should mean for an academic institution. Many in the academy understand diversity to mean having a student body that is diverse. This means that both genders are represented as well as students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Most recently the inclusion of diverse religious backgrounds has been included in diversity initiatives. The problem with “only” having a diverse student body is that the faculty often are still white and overwhelmingly male—which means that white male privilege is reproduced in the classroom and for students.  This perspective doesn’t make room for the needs of a diverse student body nor does it include a pedagogy that is cultural sensitive to those needs. I’m not suggesting that white men cannot lead students in engaging educational experiences; I’m suggesting that it can be harder for faculty and students to find common places that build community (Burke) when the faculty isn’t diverse. As Kynard and Eddy (2009) suggest when the administrations focus only on recruitment and not faculty diversity students can find themselves alienated in the very environment that is supposed to be welcoming. Unlike PWI’s HBCUs often have a diverse mix of racial, ethnic, and gender backgrounds that provide students with a variety of self-representation. This mix is also what makes for an experience that provides students with a safe-space making meaning of their experiences in the world.

In light of the wave of activism that has swept the country, students at PWIs have found themselves face-to-face with racism on their campuses. Brandeis, the University of California at Berkley, Claremont McKenna College, Dartmouth College, Emory University, Georgetown University, Ithaca College, and Purdue all have found themselves responding to racism on their campuses. Student organizations have asked for a number of things to rectify the problem of racism. Requests have included hiring more faculty of color, renaming buildings that bear the names of racist men, and calling for the resignation of high ranking campus officials. Being at an HBCU doesn’t insulate students against racism, sexism, or classism, but it does provide students of colors with more allies. Allies who understand the unique experiences that they bring with them to campus. In addition to having a safe space for working through personal and community oriented problems, HBCUs provide faculty with the opportunity to use culturally inclusive pedagogies.

The HBCU history is ripe with stories that demonstrated the need for creating a curriculum that met specific needs of students of color. The purpose and mission went beyond classes and was connected to the idea of racial uplift. Given that HBCUs have changed with the vicissitudes of times, one thing remains and that is the need for faculty to teach with curriculum that combats the racist pedagogies at American universities (Kynard and Eddy 2009).  I argue that the HBCU allows faculty more freedom to address the needs of students. As one faculty member put it, “I’m part teacher, part prayer partner, part disciplinarian, part cheerleader, and part counselor. All this changes depending on the needs of my students. They come from such varied backgrounds, but I know it’s my job to help see them through. Help get them ova,” (Leasure, 2007). These sentiments ring true for many educators in the HBCU environment. They see their job as multi-faceted and fluid, but grounded in helping students understand the realities of racism and the workplace in addition to teaching them concepts and theories from textbooks. The combination of real world experience and advice is an integral part of the HBCU pedagogy. As Kynard and Eddy state, one that is intentional and serves as “counter hegemonic” to the “American educational landscape” (p.W25).  The need to offer the self as part of the narrative is also rooted in the need for community development.

HBCUs have a rich tradition of providing the surrounding community with access to academic programs that enhance community life. For example, North Carolina Agricultural &Technical State University in Greensboro, NC has a 5 star rated child development center on its campus. This daycare center provides the outside community with access to quality pre-k education for children in the Triad. Albany State University in Albany, Ga hosts summer enrichment camps that give students in Dougherty County, one of the poorest counties in Ga, access to programs that focus on academics and athletics. HBCU’s also provide access to sporting events, theatre performances, and lectures that focus on the needs of people of color. Their presence in the Black community ensures that generations of youth see students of color in the pursuit of advanced degrees. So when people say HBCUs are a thing of that past, I laugh out loud. Given the problems with police brutality, systemic racism, and the school to prison pipeline, I find hope that HBUCs will continue to be beacons of light in communities of color.