Summary: From small beginnings to immense influence, HBCUs are an important milestone in Black American history and pivotal to American culture. They have made significant contributions to the world and are continuing to have a major impact on higher education in the US. The reason why HBCUs were started is clear, but what exactly is their value today?
During this Black History Month 2023, it’s important to consider the role Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have had in providing an education for thousands of Black Americans who were excluded from enjoying the full rights of a citizen of the United States as enshrined in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The scholars these institutions produced ultimately became the foundations of the movement to “secure the blessings of liberty” for ALL posterity.
Today, the legacy of the HBCU reverberates not only in American history but in Black identity and Black culture whose reach is global. During this time of self-reflection and celebration, let us revisit how it all began and why HBCUs continue to play an important role in cultivating the next generation of talent.
Even today, many of the members of Black at Extreme (BEX), Extreme Networks’ Employee Resource Group (ERG) for Black and African American employees have studied at, are a legacy of, or have family and friends who were educated at, one of the 99 campuses of higher education across the United States. So, the impact of HBCUs on Black culture and Black identity, especially during this time of self-reflection and celebration, can’t be underscored. —Ryan Smith, Chair, Black at Extreme (BEX) Inclusion, Networking and Community
Why Then? A Quick History
The first HBCU can be traced back over 180 years ago. In 1837, Richard Humphreys, a silversmith and beneficiary of family fortune, founded a school for Black Americans in Philadelphia (now known as Cheyney University). But it was really after the Civil War (1861-1865) that HBCUs truly got their start.
In 1865 a new, recognized United States government was established and the Thirteenth Amendment became official, outlawing slavery across the country. Until then, education had been prohibited to Black Americans in most Southern states and discouraged in the Northern states. But now recognized as a basic human right, philanthropists, religious organizations, and the federal government joined freed Black Americans in building schools.
These would be the only source of education for Black Americans for many years and often provided primary, secondary and post-secondary learning. Their aim was to teach children of the formerly enslaved and train them to teach the generations.
Today Black Americans have the freedom to choose which school they attend. While the world is different than when HBCUs first began, there is still a need for the values and culture that they provide.
According to UNCF, America’s largest minority scholarship institution, HBCUs are more relevant now than ever for two critical reasons:
With tuition rates averaging 30% less than at comparable institutions, HBCUs are widely known as "the best buy in education". Recognized for strong academic programs, inclusive academic advising and cutting-edge courses, HBCUs are providing quality education at a good cost. This is especially important at a time when the expense of post-secondary education has come into question.
Dr. Michael Lomax of UNCF says this could be a socioeconomic equalizer—and one that encourages low-income, first-generation post-secondary students to take that initial ground-breaking step.
More than 43 million Americans in marginalized homes have almost $1.3 trillion in college loans. Of those, 54% are Black Americans between age 25 and 40, compared to 39% of white Americans in the same age group.
"By providing a best value in education, says Dr. Michael, “HBCUs help to eliminate or reduce student debt for low- to middle-income families, which could dramatically narrow the racial wealth gap between Black and white households.”
A Gallup-Purdue poll found that Black graduates of HBCUs are much more likely to have felt supported while in school and to thrive afterwards than those who graduate from white institutions.
Now the same diverse faculty, staff and inclusivity culture for which it began has become a refuge for international students. Students from marginalized backgrounds or newly from other countries can rely on an HBCU’s reassuring and safe environment.
It’s clearly a winning formula. HBCUs are recognized as "the epicenter of African American culture” and are often sought after to endorse specific brands for their sensitivity to or representation of Black American culture. Brands like Nike, The North Face, Timberland, and Ralph Lauren can all boast HBCU support.
HBCU contributions to the US:
Famous HBCU Alumni
"It is not uncommon to discover HBCUs with multiple generations of families" as successful alumni. —Jemayne Lavar King, PhD, Founding Director of the Institute of Hip-Hop and Cultural Studies / Associate Professor of English, Virginia State University
Alice Walker, Spelman College
(American Novelist known for The Color Purple, poet, activist)
Althea Gibson, Florida A&M University
(first Black American tennis player to win Wimbledon, French and US Open titles)
Bob Hayes, Florida A&M University
(first and only athlete to win an Olympic Gold Medal and a Super Bowl)
George Alcorn, Howard University
(inventor of the Imaging X-ray Spectrometer)
Jesse Jackson Sr, North Carolina A&T State University
(civil rights activist)
John W. Thompson, Florida A&M University
(first Black American Chairman of Microsoft Corporation)
Martin Luther King Jr, Morehouse College
(civil rights movement leader)
Michael Strahan, Texas Southern University
(retired NFL Hall of Famer and Super Bowl Champion)
Oprah Winfrey, Tennessee State University
(talk show host, TV producer, actress, author, philanthropist)
Thurgood Marshall, Howard University
(first Black American Justice of the Supreme Court)
Wilma Rudolph, Tennessee State University
(World Record Holding Olympic Track & Field Champion)
Leading the Way Forward
HBCUs were initially established to provide a new start to generations born out of oppression. Today the qualities they uphold are extending that right to new generations taking their first step into post-secondary education. These students are provided with refuge, safety and acceptance. They can count on affordable, quality education and an environment that gives every opportunity to succeed and thrive.
During Black History Month, it’s beneficial to look back and see what’s working and why—and use this as an opportunity to build on the success and mission of the past. The promise upheld by HBCUs across America are worth emulating at every higher education institution around the world. There’s always room to learn and grow more. Let’s take this month to recognize success and use it to empower the generations to come.