Historically African-American Universities: 150 years of service to the black cause

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Today, the United States has 105 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the nation. They graduate more than 50 percent of African-American professionals and public school teachers, and 70 percent of African-American dentists, according to the United Negro College Fund.

Half of all African-Americans who graduate from HBCUs go on to graduate from professional schools. HBCUs award more than one-third of the degrees held by African-Americans in natural sciences and half of the degrees in mathematics. Overall, the average graduation rate at HBCUs is higher than the average graduation rate for African-Americans at majority institutions.

Today, most historically black institutions of education welcome all students, regardless of race. Until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, however, most blacks who wanted a college education could get it only from an HBCU, so these institutions became the primary source of community leaders as well as centers of African-American intellectual life.

Some were founded before the American Civil War (1861-1865) — Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio, for example, was founded in 1856 at a destination of the Underground Railroad, a network of clandestine routes and safe havens by which slaves escaped to freedom. Wilberforce University depended on private funding and was affiliated first with the Methodist Episcopal Church and later the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Many HBCUs were created immediately after the Civil War, when the U.S. Congress established the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands to aid the 4 million black Americans who were making the transition from slavery to freedom. More than 1,000 black schools were built and more than $400,000 — a large sum at the time — was spent to establish teacher-training institutions.

Government support continues today through a White House Initiative for which President Bush requested $402.8 million in fiscal year 2008 to strengthen institutions of higher education that serve high proportions of minority and disadvantaged students, including HBCUs.

Most of these institutions, however, rely mainly on private sources and churches. They now put special emphasis on educating not just scholars but community leaders.

Distinguised alumni of HBCUs

Morehouse College in Atlanta, founded in 1867, is the only private, historically black four-year liberal arts college for men. With more than 3,000 students, Morehouse confers more bachelor degrees on African-American men than any other institution in the United States. Its alumni include Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martin Luther King Jr., as well as award-winning filmmaker Spike Lee and Olympic champion Edwin Moses.

Spelman College, also in Atlanta, is the oldest four-year liberal arts institution for black women, and it is consistently ranked by national publications as one of the best undergraduate institutions in the United States. Founded in 1881 with 11 students in the basement of a church, Spelman was recently ranked number 1 by a national poll for “social mobility” because its graduation rate of 77 percent far exceeds what is expected of an institution with such a high percentage of students from lower-income families. Its alumni include journalist Rolanda Watts and Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman.

Size is not a good measure of a school’s influence. Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, founded in 1866, has an enrollment of just 825 students, but it has played a significant role since educating W.E.B. Dubois in the 19th century, who argued that civil rights and political power were essential for blacks, and who co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Fisk’s faculty and students include such major figures in American literature as Arna Bontemps, Sterling A. Brown, Robert Hayden and James Weldon Johnson; the eminent historian John Hope Franklin; civil rights leader John Lewis, now a member of the Democratic Party leadership in Congress; and award-winning contemporary poet Nikki Giovanni.

Dubois’ opponent in what became the greatest debate in the African-American community was Booker T. Washington, the founder and president of what is now called Tuskegee University. Washington argued that hard work and education in the industrial sciences, rather than political power, were the keys to progress for blacks. Among Tuskegee’s best-known alumni are novelist Ralph Ellison, who implicitly criticizes Washington in his influential novel Invisible Man; five-time Grammy Award-winning musician Lionel Richie; and the Tuskegee airmen, a group of African-American combat pilots whose outstanding performance during World War II represented a milestone toward integration of the U.S. military.

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