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Hidden in Plain Sight: Historically Black Colleges and Universities in America

Walter R. Allen, Audrey Devost e Cymone Mack
p. 25-46


Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois held different visions for Black Higher Education. Should college prepare “Talented Tenth” leaders to advocate for full Black equality or teach vocational skills for separate economic development? Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) play significant roles in American culture and society. HBCUs exert outsized influence producing notable Black scholars, political leaders, professionals, and media stars. However, Anti- Black Racism and White Supremacist attitudes minimize or dismiss these important contributions. We critically examine HBCUs in the US higher education landscape from 1976 to 2015 to overview Black college student attendance and graduation patterns. In 2018, HBCUs (3 percent of US universities) awarded 13 percent of BA degrees, 6 percent of MAs and 11 percent of doctorates earned by African Americans. The percent of total degrees HBCUs awarded Black students declined from 1977: 35 percent BAs, 21 percent MAs and 11 percent Doctorates. Emerging from the fiery furnace of American Slavery, Jim Crow Racism and Racial Oppression, HBCUs provided higher education opportunities to lift the Black community and advance American society. HBCUs are a national treasure that must be preserved and strengthened by dismantling systemic inequities in attitudes, funding, resources, and legislation.

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1Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are essential to the social, political, and economic progress of African Americans. Despite racial prejudice, discrimination and exclusion, HBCU graduates have profoundly influenced mainstream society. The Civil Rights Movement, led by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Morehouse College graduate transformed this nation and energized progressive movements globally. Oprah Winfrey, media mogul and social activist, is a Tennessee State University Alum. Nobel Prize Laureate Toni Morrison was a graduate of Howard University, like the first Black U. S. Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, President Barack Obama’s mentor.

2Three percent of all colleges and Universities in the United States are HBCUs, but they produce a disproportionate share of Black professionals and leaders. HBCUs graduate 27 percent of African American BAs in STEM fields, (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Xavier University -New Orleans is top producer nationally of Black B.A.s to Blacks in Biological and Physical Science (Fiegener and Proudfoot, 2013). Spelman College leads in the production of Black Female Medical and STEM doctoral students (Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 2019).

3America’s first white colleges denied Black people educational access, attainment and even, literacy (Allen et al., 2007; Brown, 2013). Before Emancipation, Blacks were forbidden to read and write on penalty of injury or death (Jewell, 2002). Still Blacks helped to establish America’s first public primary and secondary schools during Reconstruction (Anderson, 1988). Although Black people were forbidden to attend, the sale and purchase of Black bodies funded the establishment of Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown, Virginia, and Yale Universities (Wilder, 2013). Colleges also used slaves as staff, construction workers and servants for both students and faculty. Yet, early colleges promulgated racial hegemony and White Supremacist ideologies that legitimized Black enslavement, conquest of Native Americans, and exploitation of Mexican and Chinese labor (Gramsci, 1971; Omi and Winant, 2015).

1. Race and Educational Inequality

4Educational inequity in the United States is rooted in race, class, and gender inequality. Although inequality has declined, racial disparities form a legacy in the U.S. educational system (Ladson-Billings and Tate, 1995). W.E.B. Du Bois, the great intellectual, first Black PhD from Harvard University and founder of modern Sociology, produced interdisciplinary scholarship about global racial inequalities (Morris, 2015). Du Bois’ concepts, “the color line (1903a) and “racial capitalism” address the realities of HBCUs (1935). The color line refers to the physical, and symbolic, divide between races. This line is inherently hierarchical, privileging whites and oppressing blacks (1903a). Du Bois’ theory of racial capitalism placed slavery and capitalism in the United States in broader historical, economic, cultural and social context (Morris, 2015). Du Bois saw Slavery and Capitalism as interlocking systems of power, cumulating in Black oppression. White Supremacy serves (and is driven by) the unquenchable thirst for cultural, social, economic and political domination of Blacks – and other People of Color. Du Bois saw education generally, and higher education in particular, through the lenses of White Supremacy, Anti-Black Racism and Racial Capitalism (Pierce, 2017).

5Du Bois’ analysis of caste education concluded «schools played a central role in preserving the caste society established in the colonial-plantation period» (Pierce, 2017, 24). Caste education replaced the old slave, color-based, caste system to defend White Supremacy, as emancipated African Americans threatened national ideas of racial purity and legal rights. The development of the caste education system extended from Reconstruction to the Jim Crow era, when Slave Codes evolved into Black Codes and public schools became places where the racial privileges of the ‘‘white world’’ were educated into existence (Pierce, 2017).

6Racial Caste formation through schooling reveals the adaptive nature of White Supremacy in America. Systemic Racism permeates all social norms, practices and institutions to perpetuate the subjugation of African Americans (Omi and Winant, 2015). Du Bois’ Caste Education theory provides a lens for analysis of the history, development, and status of HBCUs. It makes clear why these institutions face enduring hardships: underfunding (Baylor, 2010), poor academic reputation (Baylor, 2010), and overall negative stereotypes (Allen, Jewell and Griffin, 2007). Du Bois’ scholarly analyses of racism, economic exploitation, oppression and White Supremacy reveal how these foundational pillars of American society, provide context for the emergence and significance of HBCUs.

2. The Origins of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

7HBCUs are products of the enduring Black struggle for freedom and equality. Enslaved Blacks recognized the transformative power and promise of education for improving their lives (Washington, 1901; Anderson, 1988). HBCUs have sustained Black culture and educated Black professionals who helped lift the social and economic condition of Black people. Research has mostly concerned the role of HBCUs in the Black community and in American society as related to race and class in a post-Civil Rights society (Allen et al., 2007). Scholars also examined how HBCUs influence Black political ideology, advance educational opportunity for Black people, and train Black leaders and workers despite economic, social and political difficulties (Jewell, 2007; Allen, 1992).

8Before the Civil War, Black people were mostly denied higher education, which represented a threat to White Supremacy (Brown, 2013). After Emancipation, freed Blacks flooded schools in their eagerness to cement newly gained rights and increase socio-economic capital (Anderson, 1988; Allen and Jewell, 2002). As slaves were emancipated, the nation began to imagine a modern public educational system. Newly (and temporarily) empowered Blacks played crucial roles in establishing public education systems in the South. However, when Reconstruction ended and federal troops withdrew from the South, Whites used legal and extralegal tactics, to force Black people into a redesigned system of repression that replicated slavery (Alexander, 2010; Du Bois, 1935).

9Blacks struggled against oppressive policies and practices that restricted economic, social, and political freedoms. Anderson (1988) reveals former slaves were leading advocates for universal, state-supported public education. This ideology and educational policy was unpopular in the South, where Southern planter elites believed government should have no role in education. Although White Northerners made important contributions to Black education in the South, the idea of universal public education was the brainchild of freed slaves. Moreover, Black communities regularly pooled resources to fund these schools (Du Bois, 1935).

10Whites who came South to educate emancipated slaves were surprised to learn that schools were mostly staffed and run by Black people (Anderson, 1988). Lacking state funding, early HBCUs relied on assistance from Missionary societies and Philanthropists to operate their schools, e.g., American Missionary Association, Disciples of Christ, and African Methodist Episcopal Church (Jewell, 2007). The “power of the purse” enabled Whites to exercise control over curriculum and educational goals for Black schools. Some HBCUs maintained classical liberal arts curricula, but the majority were forced to teach rudimentary skills related to etiquette and dress, common labor, and religious education.

11Early HBCUs mostly emphasized vocational/industrial training over Classical, Liberal Arts education. Nevertheless, there was often disagreement about the ultimate purpose of education for Blacks; should Blacks be educated and socialized to assume menial positions, or should they be prepared for full, equal participation in society? Whites more often supported the vocational education model, since a Liberal Arts education was considered too intellectually rigorous and a breeding ground for radical ideas, like freedom, equality and empowerment (Allen et al., 2007).

12Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois personified related, but contrasting, visions for Black higher education. Washington, a former slave, a graduate of Hampton University and founder of the Tuskegee Institute believed vocational and industrial education was key to Black economic advancement and self-reliance. His conservative political stance also accepted the status quo of racial segregation and Black subordination. He deferred to White insecurities about a diminished labor force and increased Black assertiveness, arguing that vocational education would produce a docile labor force, instill morality, lessen racial conflict, and foster assimilation of White values (Norrell, 2009).

13W.E.B. Du Bois was born free in Western Massachusetts and completed liberal arts educations at Fisk University an HBCU, Harvard University and the University of Berlin; considered higher education to be a tool for Black struggle and liberation (Allen and Jewell, 2002). He believed a classical liberal arts curriculum would confirm Black intellectual capacity and challenge White racial, economic, political and social dominance. Du Bois argued that HBCUs should prepare broadly educated Black students to assume their rightful places as full, co-equal citizens in America and the world.

14In the early 1900s, 41 out of 99 HBCUs did not offer college-level courses and HBCUs primarily enrolled pre-college students (Allen et al., 2007). Black colleges were first in the nation to open their doors to all students, which «changed the landscape of HBCUs» in terms of socioeconomic, racial and ethnic characteristics (Jewell, 2002). To serve diverse student needs, HBCUs offered coursework ranging from high school to college. Although most HBCU students were formerly enslaved Blacks, enrollment included «children of White missionaries, Native Americans, poor Whites, and international students from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean», as well as White and Jewish female students who enrolled in professional programs (Allen et al., 2007, 268). While there was gendered inequality on these campuses, «Black women were often able to attend college in larger numbers than their White female peers because of the open access mission of HBCUs» (Allen et al., 2007, 269). Most students at HBCUs in 1900 were Black men, but by 1935 Black women outnumbered them. In 1890, a generation after the Civil War and Emancipation, there were over 200 HBCUs (Brown, 2013).

15The Federal government gifted States captured Native American land under the 1862 Morrill Act, with the mandate to establish public universities focused on Agriculture and Mechanical/Technical Arts. When these universities excluded Blacks, the Second Morrill Act was passed in 1890 to create Black land grant universities. HBCU enrollment grew exponentially from late 19th to the 20th century as Black student enrollment in the South increased from 3,880 in 1900 to 29,000 by 1935 (Anderson, 1988). Booker T. Washington’s push for vocational education benefitted greatly from the 1890 Morrill Act, which expanded industrial education across Black Land Grant campuses (Harper, Patton and Wooden, 2009).

16White control over Black colleges persisted beyond the 1920s and the “New Negro” movement. Alumni and students demanded greater Black freedom and agency on HBCU campuses. White College Presidents and White-controlled Boards enforced draconian moral and behavioral codes that restricted Black social life, cultural expressions and non-Western curricula at HBCUs. W.E.B. Du Bois addressed these tensions during Howard University’s 1930 graduation: «the whole question as to what the education of Negroes was truly aiming at […] is and must be important, but surely it can never be so important as the man himself […] The object of education is not to make men carpenters but to make carpenters men» (1930/2001, 87-88). Du Bois argued forcefully for education of the whole person. The goal was not to create laborers with strong backs and willing hands, but rather to develop a college educated, Talented Tenth of Black leaders committed to full citizenship, equality and humanity for their people.

17American higher educational institutions function to satisfy societal needs: socialization of citizens, stratification of economic and political participation, and allocation of scarce resources. Main stream higher education has largely served the interests of powerful White elites, whose penultimate goal was to reinforce the racial hierarchy, hold power, build wealth, protect the status quo and propagate acceptable political views (Jewell, 2002). White colleges refused to educate Black students, so HBCUs prepared Black teachers to meet their community’s burgeoning demand for education. Du Bois declared, «The Negro race in the south needs teachers above all else» (1903b/2002, 89). Interestingly, Washington also agreed this was the only certain way to advance and secure Black freedom and prosperity (Smock, 2009, 170).

18Both W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington embraced visions of progress and development for Black Americans. Like the Black masses, they believed education was essential for achieving «Black Self-Determination» (Franklin, 1992). Although both men supported Black empowerment through Black control of schools, businesses, and institutions in their communities, they held radically different beliefs over how best to achieve this end. Whereas Washington publicly endorsed the “Racial Status Quo” of Black subordination and segregation, Du Bois loudly criticized the denial of Black citizenship rights and demanded full participation in society (Franklin, 1992; Smock, 2009). Washington’s strategy renounced all claims of “social equality,” in favor of pushing for economic development. He accepted the Supreme Court’s “Separate but Equal” ruling in Plessy, but dreamed of the day when doors would open to accept Blacks, after «we be prepared for the exercise of these privileges» (Norrell, 2009, 124). Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Exposition Speech cemented his unholy alliance with White Supremacy when he thundered, «In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress» (Norrell, 2009, 125).

19Du Bois and Washington acknowledged the abject poverty, crushing oppression and extreme disenfranchisement of recently emancipated Black people (Franklin, 1992). Both recognized the Black community’s urgent need for social regeneration and empowerment. They shared an unshakeable belief in the power of education, but differed concerning the appropriate form, content and role for Black higher education. Du Bois repudiated the myth of innate inferiority and demanded immediate recognition of Black people’s humanity and full citizenship rights. He also placed blame for the devastation of Black communities squarely with Slavery and White Supremacy, «two hundred and fifty years that black serf toiled at the plow and yet that toiling was in vain […] unless we have political rights and righteously guarded civil status, he will still remain the poverty stricken and ignorant plaything of rascals» (1903b/2002, 79-80).

20Du Bois also derided the false choice between classical and industrial, education, arguing «A system of education is not one thing, nor does it have a single definite object, nor is it a mere matter of schools. Education is the whole system of human training, within and without school house walls, that molds and develops men» (ivi, 86). He valued broad educational opportunities that offered Classical and Vocational options, «I believe that next to the founding of Negro colleges the most valuable addition to Negro education since war has been industrial training of black boys» (ivi, 88). Du Bois also strongly advocated for Black control over schools and colleges that served Black students, he argued «there could be no college for Negroes which is not a Negro College […] with teachers who know what they are teaching and whom they are teaching» (Franklin, 1990, 384). Blacks wanted social institutions that were controlled by and for them, «alien values and practices in schools opened by white missionaries and teachers [however] meant that the masses of African Americans generally preferred to attend schools conducted by African American teachers and principals» (Franklin, 1992, 168-169).

21Seeking strategies for development and “social regeneration” of Blacks, a people one step removed from chattel slavery, Du Bois argued, «The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth. It is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the mass away from the contamination and death of the worst in their own and in other races» (1903b/2002, 76). It was essential to “raise up” a class of “servant-leaders” to eradicate widespread ignorance that denied Blacks the sophistication necessary to understand and dismantle their oppression. The “Talented Tenth” would help secure the fragile freedom of recently emancipated slaves and their progeny. HBCUs would furnish teachers who brought «the masses of blacks into contact with modern civilization, made black men the leaders of their communities and trainers of the generation […] college bred Negroes were first teachers and then teachers of teachers» (ivi, 84).

22Both Washington and Du Bois recognized that education was vital for the future of Black people. Moreover, each advocated for Black controlled higher education institutions. HBCUs were to educate students, train teachers and professionals, generate research, raise up leaders and build the community wealth essential for Black progress. Washington opined, «the work of civilization must begin at the bottom instead of the top […] The great medium for bringing about these changes is the school» (Washington and Park, 1912, 384). Whereas Du Bois asserted, «the college today among negroes is, just as truly as it was yesterday among whites, the beginning and not the end of human training» (1903b/2002, 73). However, they held profoundly different ideas about how educated Blacks should relate to the dominant White society. Washington counselled quiet deference to the racist status quo, while Du Bois issued loud, aggressive challenges. Over the long struggle for liberty, equality and justice, Blacks have navigated this complex terrain between resistance and accommodation. Du Bois’ profound insights about the unholy trinity of race, education and social inequality provide context for our assessment of Black progress in higher education. He predicted an America where Black educational disadvantage was linked inter-generationally to diminished life chances and quality of life, «we are deliberately rearing millions of our citizens in ignorance, and at the same time, limiting the rights of citizenship by educational qualifications. This is unjust» (ivi, 88).

3. Black Students in U.S. Higher Education

23Following massive uprisings across the United States, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (1968) reported extreme racial inequities in employment, housing, and education. The Kerner Report, commissioned by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, concluded, «our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal». The Report detailed how White Racism created and maintained devastating racial disparities in life chances and outcomes.

24Educational inequality has ruinous consequences for Black employment, earnings and wealth in our “knowledge economy”. Life opportunities and outcomes are highly correlated with educational attainment. College graduates have higher lifetime earnings; and degrees from more prestigious institutions, or in highly competitive fields, pay even higher premiums. National patterns and trends in Black student college enrollment and graduation rates reveal entrenched barriers to Black educational equity. Although Black college attendance grew exponentially in terms of the sheer number and variety of institutions attended, extreme racial disparities persisted. Blacks lag behind Whites at all ages in Percent of Adults with College Degrees: 25-34 = Blacks 35.3 % v Whites 55.2%; 35-44 = 41.9% v 58.1%; 45-54= 37.4% v 50.8%; 55-64= 31.8% v 46.1% and 65 or older= 25.2% v 41.3% (Espinosa et al., 2019).

25In 2015, there were 2.7 million Black college students, 13.4 percent of total college students; with 2.3 million, or 13.6 percent of undergraduates and 364,300, or 12.4 percent of graduates (NCES, 2016a). In terms of degrees, Black students earned 137,892, or 13.6 percent of Associate degrees (NCES, 2016b). Among Bachelor’s degrees, 192,715, or 10.1 percent of Bachelor’s degrees were granted to Black students (NCES, 2017a). Blacks earned 87,265 Master’s degrees, or 11.5 percent of the total (NCES, 2017b); and 13,278 or 7.4 percent of doctoral degrees conferred, went to Black students (NCES, 2016c). Black students largely attend public institutions, 1.8 million, or 12.2 percent, of total national college enrollment; with 854,000, or 13.8 percent, at public two-year institutions and 916,500 or 11 percent at public four-year institutions (NCES, 2016d). Research has increasingly focused on the high Black student enrollment at for-profit institutions; these institutions are generally more expensive, resulting in high debt, and more frequent loan defaults (Iloh and Toldson, 2013).

26Despite their monumental contributions, HBCUs cannot accommodate all eligible Black college students. In 2015, 300,000, or ten per cent, of roughly 3 million African Americans in college and universities, attended HBCUs. Ninety per cent Blacks college students enrolled at Traditionally White Institutions and they overwhelmingly attended public universities.

3.1. Traditionally White Flagships and “Black-Serving Institutions”

  • 1 For more detailed information on the states, institutions, percent enrollment and degree completio (...)
  • 2 Black-serving institutions are historically white institutions with a high proportion of Black stu (...)

27Fifty years after the Kerner Report, Allen et al. (2018) probed racial disparities in Black student enrollment and degree completion rates between 1976 and 2015.1 In the twenty states with the largest Black populations, they examined three public, four-year universities: the state flagship, a Black-serving institution2, and an Historically Black College or University where present (HBCU). The study considered enrollment and graduation patterns and trends for full-time Black undergraduate and graduate students.

28African American students were drastically underrepresented at flagships: Black undergraduate enrollment at the University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Los Angeles; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and University of Texas, Austin was 4 percent or less (Allen et al., 2018: Table 2). This was true even though in 2015 the African American population was 7.1 percent in California, 15.2 percent in Michigan, and 12.8 percent in Texas (Table 1). Comparing flagship enrollment and state population reveals that despite different state and institutional contexts, Black students were drastically underrepresented at flagships nationwide (Nichols and Schak, 2019). Various justifications are offered for persistent Black enrollment and graduation disadvantages on “Public Ivy” campuses: rhetoric (“Meritocracy”), ideology (colorblindness), legislation (Affirmative Action bans) and negative sentiments (“reverse racism”). Taken together, these “explanations” essentially normalized Racial Disparity, Racial Hierarchy and Racial Hegemony (Omi and Winant, 2015; Gramsci, 1971).

29Black underrepresentation at flagships is significant given their greater prestige and resources, compared to Black Serving Institutions (BSIs) and HBCUs. The U.S. Supreme Court’s conclusion in Sweatt v. Painter (1950) confirmed that separate is never equal (Mustaffa, 2017). The legacy of White privilege, and the cumulative advantages, fueled by enduring racist policies and practices, created insurmountable chasms between the flagship University of Texas and the HBCU Texas Southern University (formerly known as Texas State University for Negroes).

30Compared to flagships, BSIs have considerably higher Black enrollment and graduation. However, BSIs also experienced pronounced fluctuations over the period. BSI’s were consistently disadvantaged relative to the higher prestige, more research-intensive state flagship campuses. The rhetoric of valuing Diversity aside, academic hierarchy among state universities privileges selectivity (exclusion), and rewards institutions with lower enrollment and graduation of Black, non-White, poor and rural students.

3.2. Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Enrollment and Graduation

31Blacks are a larger proportion of the student body at HBCUs than at Traditionally White flagships and BSIs. In 2011, 61 percent of all HBCU undergraduates were Black, whereas in the 1950s, under de jure, legal racial segregation, nearly all HBCU students were Black (Brown, 2013; Gasman, 2013). There was a dramatic shift by the mid-1970s, when the majority of Black students attended Traditionally White Institutions (TWIs) (Allen, 1992). Many HBCUs experienced troubling decreases in Black undergraduate enrollment and degree completion after 1976. By contrast, HBCU enrollments in graduate and professional programs increased during the period – due to more non-Black students enrolled in MA and specialized degree programs (Allen et al., 2018).

  • 3 Historically Black Land-Grant Universities specifically refer to the 21 institutions established a (...)
  • 4 Historically white Land-Grant Universities refer to institutions funded through the Morrill Act of (...)

32Historically Black Colleges and Universities “punch above their weight,” making outsized contributions to Black student enrollment and graduation. In 2019, there were 102 HBCUs located in 19 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands; 51 were public institutions and 51 were private, nonprofit institutions (NCES, 2019). Although only three percent of all U.S. higher education institutions, in 2017-18 HBCUs conferred 48,300 degrees (11 per cent of total Associates Degrees, 68 per cent Bachelors, 16 per cent Masters, 5 percent PhDs). Seventy-four per cent of all HBCU degrees, went to Black students: Blacks earned 43 per cent of 5,500 Associates Degrees, 81 per cent of 32,600 Bachelors, 71 per cent of 7,700 Masters and 62 per cent of 2,500 Doctorates. Of the total degrees earned by Black graduates in 2017-18, HBCUs awarded 13 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 6 percent of master’s degrees, and 11 percent of doctorates (NCES, 2019). The percent of total degrees awarded Blacks declined from 1976-77, when HBCUs conferred 35 per cent of Bachelors, 21 percent Masters and 14 percent Doctorates (NCES, 2017a, b, c; 2016c). Comparing Historically Black Land Grant Universities (HBLGUs)3 and Historically White Land Grant Universities (HWGLUs)4 in the South, Black students earned 60 percent of degrees awarded at HBLGUs vs 40 percent at HWGLUs (Allen and Esters, 2018).

3.3. Federal and State Disinvestment in HBCUs

33Evidence reveals severely limited federal funding to HBCUs alongside extreme wealth gaps between HBCUs and White institutions. The vast endowment gulf between HBCUs and Predominantly White institutions (PWIs) doubled over the past 20 years (Hamilton and Darity, 2017). Harvard University’s $41 Billion endowment dwarfs the largest HBCU endowment, Howard University’s $693 million (Rosenberg, 2019; HBCU Money, 2020). In fact, Harvard’s endowment is 20 times the combined total endowments for all 102 HBCUs ($2.1 Billion). Paradoxically, HBCUs are even underfunded compared to Traditionally White Institutions (TWIs) in the same state university system (HBCU Money, 2020, 2019). Overall, government funding has not kept pace with the soaring costs of higher education, further widening longstanding gaps between HBCUs and TWIs (Minor, 2008a).

34Morrill land grant institutions qualify for a dollar for dollar, state to federal funding match. States faithfully matched federal contributions to HWLGUs, but not for HBLGUs, resulting in billions of dollars lost (Lee and Keys, 2013). Per-student funding for TWIs is often twice that paid HBCUs in the same state system (Minor, 2008a). There are staggering disparities between 1862 and 1890 Morrill Act institutions in endowment wealth and campus resources (Allen and Esters, 2018; Morris et al., 1994). Combined total endowments for 21 HBLGUs was just over $740 million in 2016 (Lee and Keys, 2013). Of 18 HWLGUs in the same state higher education systems, 15 had endowments larger than the combined endowments for all 21 HBLGUs; Ten HWLGUs had endowments above $1 billion. The smallest endowment of an HWLGU in the South was $500 million, while only one HBLGU had an endowment above $100 million (Florida A&M University = $113 million).

35Federal and state disinvestment in HBCUs began when the 1890 Morrill Act, which did not provide comparable resources to 1862 Morrill Act White institutions, the «1890 legislation only mandated that funding for education be distributed annually on a ‘just and equitable basis’ as deemed by the state» (Allen and Esters, 2018, 1). In fact, «HBLGUs would receive only a single digit percentage of the funding allowed under the Morrill Act» (ivi, 4). This refutes glowing narratives suggesting the 1890 Morrill Act created equal opportunities for Black higher education. Indeed, the Act legislated White Supremacy, «[supporting] the view that Blacks were inferior» (Mustaffa, 2017, 716) and codified the long history of White Supremacist rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) the Court defined Blacks as “property,” legalizing slavery based on the lie that Black people were «beings of an inferior order» and thus «had no rights the white man was bound to respect» (Allen, 2005; Mustaffa, 2017). While in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation was Constitutionally valid. This ruling supported Jim Crow Laws that stripped Blacks of the vote and their rights as citizens, legalizing racial segregation in buses, schools and other public facilities. The Court’s assumption that separate spaces, services and institutions of equal quality were available to Blacks was demonstrably false (Bell, 1980).

36Recurrent cultural violence towards Black people connects these Supreme Court and Legislative decisions, helping to perpetuate White Supremacy (Mustaffa, 2017). There are eerie parallels between the vague 1890 Morrill Act directive to distribute funds on, «a ‘just and equitable basis’ as deemed by the state»; and the Supreme Court’s order that states end illegal racial segregation, «with all deliberate speed». In every instance, justice delayed was justice denied, since the protection of Black rights was left in the hands of those who had trampled these rights. This diabolical process, where barriers to Black progress are torn down – only to be replaced by new, equally or more destructive policies and practices – repeats over time. The continued subjugation and exploitation of Black Americans is the inevitable result, as racial dominance and White Superiority morph into equally oppressive alternatives, e.g., “Slave Codes” become “Jim Crow” laws, become “mass incarceration”. Inevitably, Anti-Black Racism is the underlying, unifying trope, or constant, across all these forms of oppression (Alexander, 2010; Omi and Winant, 2015).

4. Desegregation of U.S. Higher Education

37The destructive doctrine of “Separate but Equal” reigned as the law of the land until the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled racial segregation in schools unconstitutional in Brown v Topeka Board of Education (1954). The decision declared that schools segregated by race were “inherently unequal.” The U.S. has a long history of animosity and unyielding resistance towards Black educational opportunity Across the Deep South White citizens, schools, governors and state legislatures fiercely resisted Brown. Federal troops were mobilized in the face of blatant defiance of Federal law, at points culminating in riots and bloodshed. The President, Congress, and U. S. government agencies issued Executive Orders, passed legislation, and enforced laws to assert federal authority and overturn entrenched racial discrimination. Despite federal intervention, progress toward educational desegregation and expanded educational opportunities for Blacks in K-12 and in higher education was excruciatingly slow (Bell, 1980). The first Black students did not attend Southern White flag ship Universities for years after Brown: Alabama (1963), Georgia (1961) and Mississippi (1962). Armed troops mobilized to force the enrollment of James Meridith, the first Black student admitted to the University of Mississippi. In response, White Segregationists rioted, when the smoke cleared 2 people were dead, 300 injured and scores arrested (Gallagher, 2012).

  • 5 For more information, see the Declaratory Judgement by District Judge John H. Pratt in Adams v. Ri (...)

38The NAACP Legal Defense Fund sued the U.S. Government in Adams v. Richardson (1973) to force desegregation of public higher education systems in ten states that previously operated de jure systems segregated by race (Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Florida, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Maryland, and Virginia). The District Court’s declaratory judgment5 found these states continued to operate racially segregated systems of higher education in defiance of federal law (Title VI, 1964 Civil Rights Act). States were ordered to submit desegregation plans or risk losing Federal funding. The states generally resisted compliance, some did not submit plans, and others submitted inadequate plans. Ultimately this was yet another instance where legal authorities lacked the will to dismantle the racial hierarchy. Despite documented violations, the Federal government continued funding these states and their universities as they practiced desegregation.

39Challenges to racial segregation in the Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi higher education systems produced several landmark court cases, e.g., Geier v. Tennessee (1984), Knight v. Alabama (1981), Ayers v. Fordice (1995)/ U.S. v. Fordice (1992) and Coalition for Equity and Excellence v Maryland Higher Education Commission (2017). These cases opposed years of racial inequality, inequitable funding and marginalization (Harper, Patton and Wooden, 2009; Minor, 2008b). Settlements in favor of Plaintiffs produced real advances in the struggle for Black access to higher education. U.S. v Fordice established the Constitutional standard for determining whether a state higher education system continued to be racially dual or segregated by race and ordered substantial, remedial funding and academic enhancements for HBCUs. Geier produced the historic merger of predominantly White University of Tennessee, Nashville (UTN) under the HBCU Tennessee State University (TSU), after UTN (1968) was established as a direct competitor to TSU (founded 1947). In Knight the District Court ordered funding to increase academic programs and non-majority faculty/ students at Alabama HBCUs and TWIs.

40Recently Maryland was found liable for the continued operation of a racially dual system of higher education (Douglas-Gabriel, 2017). The Federal District Court ruled “unnecessary program duplication” perpetuated racial segregation and ordered the creation of more unique, high demand academic programs at HBCUs to eliminate racial disparities (Maryland TWIs had 122 unique/ high demand programs compared to 10 at HBCUs) and to enhance the academic profiles of HBCUs. During trial, the state claimed it would cost $1B to expand unique/ high demand academic programs at HBCUs. However, after losing in Court, the Governor offered $200M to settle but Plaintiffs countered with a settlement request of $577M (Douglas-Gabriel, 2018). The Maryland legislature recently passed a bill to fund the Plaintiff Settlement request, but the Governor vetoed this Settlement Bill to eliminate racial segregation in the Maryland university system.

5. What Future? Summary, Discussion and Implications

41Plagued by the oppressive history of Anti-Black Racism and White Supremacy, HBCUs were triumphant, overcoming insurmountable obstacles to produce graduates who excelled. Landmark Court cases and federal policies have helped Black progress in higher education, but major barriers remain. Systemic discrimination and inadequate state funding compromise the viability and survival of HBCUs. Unfair media coverage portrays HBCUs as substandard, corrupt, mismanaged and unnecessary. Systemic Racism reproduces White privilege and power across all sectors in America, including higher education (Harris, 2015). Thus, Critical Race Theory emphasizes the centrality of racism: «CRT as a framework for educational equity means that we will have to expose racism in education and propose radical solutions for addressing it» (Ladson-Billings, 1998, 2).

42While some scholars understand the past contributions of HBCUs, few fully grasp their continuing significance today and into the future (Mustaffa, 2017). The nation must invest heavily in HBCUs to make them “comparable and competitive” with TWIs. It is important to resist “one size fits all” notions given HBCU differences by history, financial viability, size, mission, demographics, and classification. Among the pressing issues faced by HBCUs are: shifting student demographics; accreditation; legal mandates; soaring costs; declining revenues; and modernizing curriculum/ pedagogy (Andrews et al., 2016; Minor, 2008b).

43The push to retool HBCUs sparks questions over how to expand student diversity and compete in the wider higher education market, while serving the Black community. HBCUs struggle to achieve fiscal viability and academic strength. Andrews et al. (2016) suggest HBCUs adopt entrepreneurial approaches to: reduce reliance on inconsistent/absent government funding; develop external funding sources and community partnerships; improve institutional branding; improve cost-effective services; and recruit more diverse students. Fiscal security has eluded many HBCUs due to chronic economic deficits, heavy reliance on tuition, and limited sources of alternative revenue, e.g., small endowments, grants, philanthropy. In any case, Isomorphism, or copying TWIs, is not a viable solution.

44HBCUs must address challenges confronting all universities, while honoring their special missions and circumstances (Nichols 2004). HBCUs can enhance the economic and cultural empowerment of African Americans by: «(a) playing [a] greater role in knowledge production as it specifically relates to African Americans, (b) being involved to a much greater extent in urban development, and (c) having more leaders with vision and an understanding of the need to bridge the gap between cultural empowerment and economic development» (Freeman and Cohen, 2001, 592).

45From the beginning HBCUs were called to provide unyielding support for Black social, economic, political, and cultural viability. To accomplish this mission, HBCUs must connect research, theory, practice and policy to the “lived” experiences of Black people across the African Diaspora. As Du Bois asserted, «The American Negro problem is and must be center of the Negro University. It has got to be. You are teaching American Negroes in 1933 and they are the subjects of a caste system in the Republic of the United States of America and their life long problem is primarily this problem of caste» (1933a/2002, 122). However, he rejected narrow parochialism if favor of a grounded knowledge approach to universal truths, «starting with present conditions and using the facts and the knowledge of the present conditions and using the facts and the knowledge of the present situation of American Negroes, the Negro University expands toward the conquest of all knowledge. It seeks from a beginning of the history of the Negro in America and in Africa to interpret all history» (1933b/2002, 247). Historically Black Colleges and Universities must ultimately compete in a global economy, while maintaining culturally relevant curricula and campus contexts true to “The Faith of the Fathers” (1903b).

46As Du Bois predicted, the growing demand for higher education eventually required government to assume greater responsibility, «The voting masses of Americans demanded vastly expanded opportunities for learning. These facilities have grown so rapidly and expanded so enormously in work and attendance that it is manifest that by the twenty-first century the problem of higher education is going to be primarily a problem of the state» (Du Bois, 1941/2001, 170-71). Neo-liberalism and free market capitalism now defines higher education as a “private good” and objects on grounds of “austerity” to investment in public universities. Interestingly, decreased government funding for higher education paralleled growth in Black and non-White college students, «the present policy drift [that] has rapidly become a strong undercurrent of disinvestment, growing student indebtedness, and fiscal starvation of public higher education» (Fabricant and Brier, 2016, 3).

47College tuition and fees have also risen meteorically, to further exclude large numbers of underrepresented students from the Promised Land of higher education (Allen et al., 2018). In this moment of greatest need, state and federal governments drastically reduced funding for HBCUs. Fabricant and Brier (2016, 4) decry «a politics of austerity that disproportionately denies the poorest students, especially those of color, quality higher education». As Du Bois predicted, «The new state system of education, therefore, is faced first of all with this question of income […] the present educational system is not designed to meet it. It is a system largely determined by the very economic inequality which it seeks to solve; and the power to administer the system lies all too largely in hands interested in privilege rather than in justice and in class advantage rather than in democratic control» (Du Bois, 1941/2001, 171).

48HBCUs rose from the fiery furnace of American slavery, racism, and oppression to represent hope and opportunity. HBCU Alumni – and those they taught, mentored or “touched” – greatly influenced Black communities and the nation (Cole, 2009). HBCUs are a triumphant «engine [in] producing Black scholars, leaders for the Civil Rights movement, and research – to highlight racist issues», as well as a place for Black life-making (Mustaffa, 2017, 719). Systematic inequities must be dismantled in order to preserve and strengthen HBCUs. They represent an alternative model of higher education which effectively prepares ALL students for engaged participation in Democracy and in Global society (Fleming, 1984).

49Dramatic upswings in Black poverty and economic disadvantage are directly tied to the concentration of wealth in society. The poor and people of color pay a high cost for White, Elite privilege, «the present policy drift [that] has rapidly become a strong undercurrent of disinvestment, growing student indebtedness, and fiscal starvation of public higher education» (Fabricant and Brier, 2016, 3). The “Gig Economy,” with expanding free-lance, insecure contract employment has decimated permanent jobs with benefits and union protections. As a result, «the masses of people find themselves part of an economic arrangement or system which is so vast and complicated that they can neither comprehend nor control it» (Washington and Park, 1912, 381). Color-Blind Ideology has negated government restrictions on practices and policies that perpetuate racial inequity. So, Black people, institutions and culture must skillfully navigate treacherous terrain, «Ours is the double and dynamic function of tuning in with a machine in action so as neither to wreck the machine nor be crushed or maimed by it. Many think this is impossible. But if it is impossible, our future economic survival is impossible» (Du Bois, 1930/2001, 104). To achieve the goal of Black freedom and equality will require more than optimism, «We are going to force ourselves in by organized far-seeing effort – by outthinking and outflanking the owners of the world today who are too drunk with their own arrogance and power successfully to oppose us, if we think and learn and do» (ibidem).

50The COVID pandemic, severe economic downturn and widespread Protests following police murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and others add to dire issues confronting HBCUs. Our nation is in the grips of a massive “Black Lives Matter” Movement for progressive social change. This Movement, founded by three young Black women to protest police brutality and extrajudicial killing of Black men and women, has spread nationally and globally (Black Lives Matter, 2013). The Black Lives Matter Movement is the tip of an iceberg of widespread discontent and demands for change in the values, decisions and actions of this nation. This Movement, led by diverse young people, insists on a different agenda for American society.

51The new agenda, values and procedures for Black higher education raise questions that echo debates between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. This requires we emphasize, «first, training as human beings in general knowledge and experience; then technical training to guide and do a specific part of the world’s work» (Du Bois, 1930/2001, 104). Du Bois admonished, «We have lost something, brothers, wandering in strange lands. We have lost our ideals. Certain great landmarks and guiding facts must stand eternally before us» (ivi, 106). Among these ideals: economic equity, unyielding hard work, rigorous pursuit of knowledge, sacrifice for the common good and appreciation of life’s beauty and joy. Ultimately just universities in a just society must include a full, diverse range of students and accept that «Three great things are necessary for the spiritual equipment of an institution of learning: Freedom of Spirit, Self-Knowledge and a recognition of the Truth» (Du Bois, 1924/2001, 65).

live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned
Antonio Gramsci, Gramsci’s Prison Letters

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1 For more detailed information on the states, institutions, percent enrollment and degree completion, as well a discussion of percent changes and various ranges of change, see the original publication by Allen, McLewis, Jones, and Harris (2018).

2 Black-serving institutions are historically white institutions with a high proportion of Black students; for example, Georgia State University.

3 Historically Black Land-Grant Universities specifically refer to the 21 institutions established after the passage of the second Morrill Act in 1890.

4 Historically white Land-Grant Universities refer to institutions funded through the Morrill Act of 1862 and provided 30,000 acres of land.

5 For more information, see the Declaratory Judgement by District Judge John H. Pratt in Adams v. Richardson, 356F. Supp. 92 (D.D.C., 1973)

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Walter R. Allen, Audrey Devost e Cymone Mack, «Hidden in Plain Sight: Historically Black Colleges and Universities in America»Quaderni di Sociologia, 83- LXIV | 2020, 25-46.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Walter R. Allen, Audrey Devost e Cymone Mack, «Hidden in Plain Sight: Historically Black Colleges and Universities in America»Quaderni di Sociologia [Online], 83- LXIV | 2020, online dal 01 avril 2021, consultato il 07 décembre 2023. URL:; DOI:

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Walter R. Allen

Graduate School of Education and Information Studies – University of California, Los Angeles

Audrey Devost

Graduate School of Education and Information Studies – University of California, Los Angeles

Cymone Mack

Graduate School of Education and Information Studies – University of California, Los Angeles

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