The History of Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs)

Defining HBCUs

HBCUs are Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) established prior to 1964 to educate persons of African descent. The Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, defines an HBCU as: “…any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association determined by the Secretary [of Education] to be a reliable authority as to the quality of training offered or is, according to such an agency or association, making reasonable progress toward accreditation.”

Institutions founded after 1964 are considered Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs) or a Historically Black Graduate Institution as recognized by the Department of Education. The technical definition of a PBI, as established in the Higher Education Act of 2008, includes the following criteria: at least 40% African American students, minimum of 1,000 undergraduates, have at least 50% low-income or first-generation degree-seeking undergraduate students, and have a low per full-time undergraduate student expenditure in comparison with other institutions offering similar instruction. These qualifications reflect conditions in which HBCUs operate, and indicate that since their founding, HBCUs have continued to serve their core constituencies: students who are of African descent, first-generation, or low-income.

View the Official List of HBCUs

The History of HBCUs

The history of Historically Black Colleges & Universities is sordid and dates back to the end of the Civil War. Before the Civil War, African Americans were not able to be educated and could not pursue higher education. Many African Americans, including Frederick Douglass, were informally educated on their own. Even though there was an increase in the development of higher learning institutions between the Civil War and World War I, African Americans were unable to attend these institutions. Following the Civil War, many HBCUs began to open in primarily southern states. These institutions were founded on the premise of “separate, but equal.” However, HBCUs at that time were underfunded, and to this day continue to face funding challenges. When HBCUs were initially founded, their goal was to educate African Americans to become teachers.

In 1837, the Institute for Colored Youth was founded in Cheyney, Pennsylvania. This was the first HBCU to open and would later become Cheyney University. The second HBCU was the Myrtilla Miner Normal School founded in 1851 and is now the University of the District of Columbia. These institutions originally provided elementary and secondary education to students and did not begin to provide postsecondary courses until the early 1900s. A majority of HBCUs were founded from 1865-1900 with a majority of them opening in 1867, two years after the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves. It was not until the passing of the Second Morrill Land Grant Act in 1890 that states with segregated public higher education systems were required to provide a land-grant institution for African American students whenever a land-grant institution was established and restricted for white students.

A majority of HBCUs were founded by philanthropists or African Americans who were educated and not enslaved. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy vs. Ferguson decision in 1896 officially established the “separate but equal” doctrine validating racially dual educational institutions for African American students, including all HBCUs. Future U.S. Supreme Court decisions following Plessy vs. Ferguson stipulated that a state must offer schooling for African Americans as soon as it provided it for white students (Sinuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma, 1948); African American students must receive the same treatment as white students (MacLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, 1950); and a state must provide facilities of comparable quality for black and white students (Sweatt v. Painter, 1950). In some instances, African Americans were admitted to traditionally white institutions if their program of study was not available at an HBCU.

The educational landscape for African Americans did not change until the U.S. Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 when the “separate but equal” doctrine was overturned because racially segregated public schools deprive African American students of equal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Even after this decision, HBCU facilities remained segregated with inadequate facilities and a lack of funding. As a result, some HBCUs were forced to close or merge with traditionally white institutions. However, African American students continued to attend HBCUs because of their cultural relevance.

HBCUs Today

Although HBCUs were originally founded to educate African Americans, they no longer exclusively serve African Americans and 1 in 4 students enrolled at HBCUs is not African American. Today’s institutions have a significant percentage of non-African American students, including Asian, Latino, white American, and students from many foreign countries. All of these students benefit from the unique education steeped in African American history and culture that HBCUs provide.

The HBCUs still in existence today have survived many historical challenges, including Jim Crow, inadequate funding, deferred maintenance and accreditation issues, and decreased enrollment. While there have been arguments debating the need for HBCUs currently, it is evident that these institutions are still needed because of their ability to prepare African Americans, and students from other backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses, for success once they graduate. Today, HBCUs graduate the highest number of African American doctors and Lawyers, these institutions also successfully prepare African American in large numbers for fields in nursing, criminal justice, business, education, information technology, and cybersecurity. Even though students are able to attend many colleges and universities these days, HBCUs are still the higher educational institution of choice because of their high level of diversity and because they are a cultural phenomenon.

Learn more about the history of HBCUs by visiting the following resources:

Videos About the History of HBCUs

  • Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities” – The latest documentary from Stanley Nelson (Black Panthers, Freedom Riders) and Marco Williams detailing the powerful story of the rise, influence, and evolution of HBCUs comes to life.
  • The History & Importance of the HBCU Experience” – The educational experiences found in Historically Black Colleges and Universities are preparing students to succeed in a world that is in great need of their perspectives. Dr. Elwood Robinson provides insight into the way considering culture in underserved populations is key to helping students learn, lead, and thrive.
  • The History of Blacks in Education: HBCUs and PWIs” – Despite obstacles, African Americans have been pioneers in education at both historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and predominately white institutions (PWIs). The History of Blacks in Education: HBCUs to PWIs explores this rich history that dates back to the 1800s.

Videos About the History of the African American Educational Experience