The History of HBCUs

The History of HBCUs

Melissa W.

In celebration of Black History Month, we’re highlighting Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Black-centered campus organizations. 


Historically Black Colleges and Universities were established before 1964 for the sole purpose of academically serving African American students. The first HBCUs were founded in Pennsylvania and Ohio before the Civil War. Previous to their existence, and during segregation in the United States, Black students were largely prevented from receiving higher education due to racial discrimination, with the majority of colleges catering predominately to white students and disqualifying the majority of Black students from attending.

The oldest HBCU is Cheyney University of Pennsylvania (then, The Institute for Colored Youth/African Institute), but the majority were founded in the South during post-Civil War life. According to Britannica, “Following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, HBCUs were founded throughout the South with support from the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal organization that operated during Reconstruction to help former slaves adjust to freedom. Such institutions as Atlanta University (1865; now Clark Atlanta University), Howard University, and Morehouse College (1867; originally the Augusta Institute) provided a liberal arts education and trained students for careers as teachers or ministers and missionaries, while others focused on preparing students for industrial or agricultural occupations. Some institutions, such as Morehouse, were all-male schools. Others, such as Spelman College (1924; originally founded in 1881 as Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary), were all-female. Most, however, were coeducational.”

The idea of HBCUs was not welcomed by all, with many prominent African Americans noting that many were founded by whites with negative prejudices on the Black community. Critics also worried that the existence of HBCUs further pushed the notion of segregation, hindering the path forward to equality.

Despite this, The United Negro College Fund, an organization dedicated to minority education, states, “Controlled comparisons prove that HBCUs outperform non-HBCU institutions in retaining and graduating black students, after accounting for the socioeconomic status and academic preparation of enrolled students.” 

There are currently 101 HBCUs in the United States (a dip from the 121 in the 1930s) offering associate’s degrees to doctorates at both 2 and 4-year institutions. While many have predominantly Black campus communities, HBCUs have opened their doors to include a more racial-diverse student body.

Do you attend an HBCU? Let us know in the comments!


Cover photo by heylagostechie on Unsplash

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