In the United States, this is currently National HBCU Week (presidential proclamation here) and yesterday marked the end of the annual academic conference on HBCUs (“Seizing the Capacity to Thrive!”) in Washington, DC. HBCUs span from Michigan and Ohio to Texas, Florida, and the US Virgin Islands – see here for the complete list and links to HBCUs.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of HBCUs – as noted in my repost from last year, I didn’t until I went to college. I’ve updated the post here and and added a few new morsels of knowledge stemming from my own continuing education about the institutional missions and history of HBCUs.
Of you, always good-looking and erudite reader of Terra Sigillata, I ask that you provide in the comments your own reflections and opinions as well as more current blog links to commentary on the modern relevance of the HBCU. Many of these links are toward the end of this post and I also direct you to last year’s comment thread.
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 the 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 (but this first week in 2009) 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 preamble of President Obama’s 2009 proclamation provides a thoughtful reflection on the role of HBCUs in the United States:
For generations, education has opened doors to untold opportunities and bright futures. Through quality instruction and a personal commitment to hard work, young people in every part of our Nation have gone on to achieve success. Established by men and women of great vision, leadership, and clarity of purpose, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have provided generations of Americans with opportunity, a solid education, and hope.
For more than 140 years, HBCUs have released the power of knowledge to countless Americans. Pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement, HBCUs offer us a window into our Nation’s past as well as a path forward. Graduates of HBCUs have gone on to shape the course of American history–from W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T.Washington, to Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. Today, in twenty States, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, these colleges and universities are serving hundreds of thousands of students from every background and have contributed to the expansion of the African American middle class, to the growth of local communities, and to our Nation’s overall economy.
This week, we celebrate the accomplishments of HBCUs and look to the future with conviction and optimism. These institutions will play a key role in reaching our ambitious national education goals, including having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. As our Nation strives toward this goal, we invite HBCUs to employ new, innovative, and ambitious strategies to help the next generation of Americans successfully complete college and prepare themselves for the global economy. During National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week, we recommit ourselves to never resting until equality is real, opportunity is universal, and all citizens can realize their dreams.
Each year about this time, the US Department of Education sponsors a week-long conference in Washington, DC, with specific themes: in 2008, it was HBCUs: Established to Meet a Need, Evolving with the Times, Essential for Today and Tomorrow and in 2009 it’s Seizing the Capacity to Thrive!.