In Honor of Black History Month: Get the 411 on HBCUs

For Black History month, let's take a look at HBCUs, or Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including their origination and some famous graduates.
HBCU Woman graduating; Celebrating Black History Month

Odds are you’ve heard of HBCUs, and maybe you’ve even been to one and or attended college there. If you aren’t familiar with them, we have all the information to get you up to speed. And even if you think you know all about them, keep reading –  because we believe you’re about to learn something new.

HBCUs stand for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but they’re open to students who aren’t Black. In fact, according to the Department of Education, only 76% of HBCU students are Black, 13% are white, 1% are Asian, and 3% are Hispanic. Many HBCUs make a serious effort to maintain enrollment levels and often offer relatively affordable tuition. With this, the percentage of non-African-American enrollment has increased.

The government defines an HBCU as one that must be an accredited university that is “established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of Black Americans.” So, as long as the school was established decades ago and still serves the Black community, it’s still an HBCU.

Why were they originally started?

Albany State University

These schools were started mainly by churches after the Civil War and during segregation. They were founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to higher education. There’s a ton of tradition involved on campus. They still graduate large numbers of Black students in science, including many with PhDs and medical degrees. In fact, over half of all African American professionals are graduates of HBCUs.

There are many, many choices when it comes to attending an HBCU. There are more than 100 of them in the United States. Geographically, they cover 20 states and the District of Columbia but are primarily situated on the east coast. 

However, it’s unclear which HBCU is technically the first in the country. Lincoln University and Cheyney University in Pennsylvania both claim the title of oldest HBCU. However, that’s a bit complicated. Cheyney was founded in 1837, but as a trade school, and it didn’t start offering degrees until 1914. Lincoln was chartered as a college in 1854. So, technically, Cheyney existed first, but Lincoln was a college first. See how there’s room for debate?

Atlanta University, now known as Clark Atlanta University, was founded in 1865 as the first HBCU in the South. It was the first graduate institution to award degrees to African Americans in the nation and the first to award bachelor’s degrees to Black people in the South. 

Continual Growth

Jackson State University

In the 1920s and 1930s, the HBCUs developed an interest in sports programs. Sports were expanding rapidly at state schools, but very few Black stars were recruited at those schools. Race newspapers lauded athletic success as a demonstration of racial progress. Black schools hired coaches, recruited and featured stellar athletes, and set up their own leagues. 

During World War II, HBCUs made significant contributions to the US war effort. One well-known example is Tuskegee University in Alabama. That’s where the Tuskegee Airmen trained and attended classes. 

Cultural Combinations

Also, in the 1930s, many Jewish intellectuals had to leave Europe after Hitler, and the anti-Jewish legislation in prewar Nazi Germany rose to power. They emigrated to the US and found work teaching in historically Black colleges. Many had been stripped of their positions at universities with Hitler’s rise to power. They couldn’t find work in other European countries but still hoped to continue their academic careers. Even in America, there was still a level of antisemitism. So, between 1933 and 1945, more than two-thirds of the faculty hired at many HBCUs were those who came to the US to escape from Nazi Germany. HBCUs saw the value Jewish professors brought and knew it would strengthen their credibility as a learning institution. They knew the importance of backing diversity and giving others opportunities, regardless of race, religion, or country of origin. Additionally, HBCUs were willing to hire everyone and wanted to educate everyone, including women. 

Modern Day

Graves Hall Dormitory at Morehouse College
Graves Hall Dormitory at Morehouse College

As of 2024, the most active HBCUs are located in Alabama; they have 14. North Carolina comes in second with 11. Each year, the US Department of Education designates one week in the fall as “National HBCU Week” to celebrate all of the schools. Conferences and events are held in Washington, DC, where the HBCUs are discussed and celebrated. Many of the scholars and alumni are recognized at these events. 

There are many, many famous alumni from HBCUs, including Martin Luther King Jr, United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and United States Vice President Kamala Harris. Many of your favorite celebrities also got degrees from HBCUs. Oprah Winfrey is an alumnus of Tennessee State University. Spike Lee majored in communications at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and Samuel L. Jackson was also a Morehouse man. He majored in marine biology before switching to performing arts. Sisters Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen went to Howard in Washington, DC, as well as Sean “Diddy” Combs. The list could go on and on and on.

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