Why Historically Black Colleges Are Still Relevant

Recently in the realm of higher education, there has been an ongoing discussion about historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their relevance. In the past three decades, several HBCUs, including St. Paul College in Virginia, Mary Holmes College in Mississippi, and Bishop College in Texas have had to close their doors due to financial reasons, leading some to question whether there is even a need for these institutions.

The US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences estimates that there are about 100 HBCUs in the country. These historically black institutions were the only option for blacks who wanted to receive an education because most predominately white institutions (PWIs) did not admit students of color. The first HBCU, Cheyney University, was founded in 1837 to help provide African descendants with a classical education, including reading and writing. Since then, hundreds of HBCUs have formed and educated millions, and presently, there are over 300,000 students enrolled in these institutions.

Opponents to HBCUs cite that the institutions create a divide or serve as tools of self-inflicted racism and segregation. However, it seems that most arguments claiming that HBCUs are no longer relevant specifically use three misconceptions to illustrate their point:

Misconception #1: Historically black colleges and universities are only for blacks.

Truth: Historically black colleges and universities are just that—historically black. “Historically” and “exclusively” are not synonymous with each other. There are millions of black students, including myself, in America who attend PWIs. Though PWIs are historically white, they, just as HBCUs, regularly admit students of races other than what the historic majority of students belong to.

Misconception #2: HBCUs were started by blacks because they did not have anywhere else to go to school.

Truth: Cheyney University was founded by a white Quaker named Richard Humphreys in 1837, who designated $10,000 in his will to “establish a school to educate people of African descent and prepare them as teachers.” In Pennsylvania, where Cheyney was founded, slavery was outlawed, and there was also a very strong Quaker presence which supported the abolitionist movement. But after escaping, many former slaves lacked the tools to thrive in society, and Cheyney provided the opportunity for them. It is true, however, that there were no institutions of higher learning for blacks at the time.

About thirty years later, Howard University was founded. As one of the most prestigious HBCU’s in the United States today, you may not know that the school was named after Oliver Otis Howard, a white Civil War general, and the university was actually led by a white president until 1926. Howard University established the first black law school in the nation, and among its first graduates was Charlotte Ray, a white female. Ray was the first female admitted to the District of Columbia Bar and the first female graduate of Howard University. Against popular belief, white Americans have a storied history in the founding of HBCUs.

Misconception #3: Closing HBCUs will help bring more diversity to PWIs and integrate students.

Truth: As previously stated, “historically” and “exclusively” are not synonymous, and HBCUs are not exclusively black. Students belonging to races other than the historic majority of the student population are eligible for admission and admitted regularly. There is no validity to closing these institutions if you think they promote a divide—they don’t.

But imagine this scenario: You were dragged from your home to a foreign land where you didn’t have a home. Upon arrival, you try and move in with people who already live there. They denied you that opportunity. As a result, you were homeless for many years and someone comes and helps you build a new home. This home serves as a safe haven for you and your family for many years afterwards. Soon after, the other residents tell you that you are welcome to go into their house and stay if you’d like. Would you tear down your house?

This is why HBCUs are certainly still relevant in today’s higher education system. HBCUs served as a safe haven for many black Americans to receive an education. Though slavery has long been outlawed, in the immediate aftermath, blacks found themselves alienated or separated from social institutions such as churches and schools—you could successfully argue that this still happens today. Upon establishing their own educational safe haven, these institutions served as the sole mode of elevation for many. To ask for the dismantling of these institutions that were born of the ashes of oppression is insensitive and foolish, as if to say: “I see all that you have built up, but I’m going to let you use my building now, so tear yours down.” Though the circumstances of the founding of HBCUs are not as important now that HBCUs are not the only higher education option for black Americans, it would be unreasonable to discount their relevance today.