When I went away to college after the summer when MTV was first launched, I had never heard of the term, “Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” But during the following summer while taking organic chemistry, I lived in a dorm with two visiting HBCU students who were doing internships at a local pharmaceutical company. The gentleman who I grew closest to had come from Hampton University (then-Hampton Institute) in Virginia.
As a Yankee born the same year as passage of US Civil Rights Act, I had not truly appreciated that African Americans, particularly in the South, had traditionally not been welcome at colleges and universities. As a result, the African American community, sometimes supported by non-black supporters, had to establish their own universities as it was recognized that education was one path to equality. In fact, while nearly all HBCUs are south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the original HBCUs were in Pennsylvania (what is now Cheyney University (1837) and Lincoln University (1854)) and Ohio (Wilberforce University (1856)) and were established by the generosity of Quaker, Episcopalian, and other abolitionist supporters.
I’m still embarrassed by my ignorance back then, in part because my Northeastern high school history classes usually began with the Industrial Revolution and the challenges faced by my post-Civil War, Eastern European immigrant ancestors.
So, I was happy to learn that since 1980, this second week of September has been designated by the White House as National HBCU Week:
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed Executive Order 12232, which established a Federal program “… to overcome the effects of discriminatory treatment and to strengthen and expand the capacity of historically black colleges and universities to provide quality education.” Each President since that time has subsequently issued an Executive Order on HBCUs, with President George W. Bush signing Executive Order 13256, Feb. 12, 2002. (Bush’s 2008 proclamation can be found here in PDF).
The US Department of Education is currently sponsoring a week-long conference in Washington, DC, with the theme, HBCUs: Established to Meet a Need, Evolving with the Times, Essential for Today and Tomorrow. (Here is one firsthand account of Sunday’ night’s events.)
The theme implies a harsh reality: that many HBCUs are struggling financially and are fighting to redefine their missions as highly-qualified African Americans now have their pick of the 4,000 or so US colleges and universities. But the continued value of HBCUs is undeniable as pointed out by Michelle J Nealy in Diverse Issues in Higher Education:
While HBCUs represent only 3 percent of all colleges and universities, they enroll close to one-third of all Black students. Forty percent of HBCU students pursue four-year degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, and about half of all Black students in teaching fields attended HBCUs. Three-quarters of all African-American Ph.D.s did their undergraduate studies at an HBCU, and, according to a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, the total economic impact of the nation’s HBCUs in 2001 was $10.2 billion.
Another interesting note I learned from Rochelle Rush is that, “Spelman College and Bennett College produce over half of the nation’s African American female doctorates in all science fields.”
But to go back further, HBCUs played an essential role in the health care of African Americans. The now-defunct Leonard Medical School and School of Pharmacy at Shaw University trained over 400 black physicians between 1881 and 1918, some of whom went on as founders of other universities and all whom addressed the critical role of health care in underserved populations across the Jim Crow South.
Here’s a pretty impressive list of well-known HBCU graduates including this Chicago businesswoman, a graduate of Tennessee State University.
But the Afrosphere is full of students and alumni debating whether HBCUs have relevance today. As New Orleans-based journalist blogger, Raving Black Lunatic, noted recently:
At any gathering of black people, either in person or on the web, the issue of whether it’s better to attend a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) or a mainstream university is pretty much guaranteed to come up at some point.
Being of Eastern European heritage as I noted above, I feel that it would be presumptuous of me to take a side in this issue, although whiteness hasn’t prevented some others from doing so (see On My Mind for a couple of video examples.) So, here are just a few of the blogosphere posts on the topic:
Bourgie Adventures is written by one graduate of a large state university describes how she didn’t miss out on “THE black experience” by not going to a HBCU.
Albany State graduate student dc1128 describes some of her/his frustrations with HBCUs and closes as follows:
I had a road rage incident where I shouted at the other driver. My daughter said, “Daddy, why do you yell at your own people?” I replied, “Your own people are the ones that do you the worst.” These incidents are not dispelling that theory.
AverageBro.com is kind of in the middle with, “Are HBCUs Obsolete?,” but leans in support of his own experience. This post is probably the most informative of all, with nearly 30 reader comments.
On the other side, one of my new favorite blogs, Keeping up with the Jonzee, the author makes a strong case about the need for HBCUs beginning with this statement:
I stand by my conviction that HBCU’s are necessary, important and valuable. And this comes from a woman who went to a majority, expensive-ass “elite” school.
Judge Joe Webster at Making a Difference at Howard U cites the importance of HBCUs throughout his career.
In the peer-reviewed literature, this Cell Biology Education article by Dr Steve Suits notes that HBCUs “are meeting a national science imperative.” This post at Historiann cites a NSF study that points to the importance of HBCUs in producing African American STEM Ph.D.s
The discussion thread on this post at The HBCU Republication Connection (yes, HBCU Republicans) provides more insight on this question.
But the best quote I found came from a magazine, not a blog. George E. Curry wrote last month in the Chicago Defender,
Do we still need Historically Black Colleges and Universities? It’s a question that even some Blacks are asking. Interestingly, those same people never ask whether Catholics still need Notre Dame or whether women still need Wellesley College?
For more information on National HBCU Week, please go to the US Department of Education webpage devoted to this proclamation.