Historically black colleges (sometimes referred to as historically black colleges and universities or HBCUs) are defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965 as any accredited African-American academic institution established before 1964 with the primary mission to educate black minorities in the United States. There are between 105 and 110 historically black colleges in the United States today, with the majority established after the American Civil War. Since then, the progress of education at African-American institutions of higher learning has been closely linked to the development of civil rights in the United States.
Prior to the the start of the American Civil War (1861–65), more than 90 perent of the nation's 4 million slaves lived in the Southern United States, where, with the exception of Tennessee, every state outlawed the education of any person of African descent, whether enslaved or free. It is estimated that 90 percent of the adult black population in the South at that time was illiterate. The remaining 10 percent was either self-taught or educated in one of the few autonomous private schools operated covertly in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia and Cleveland. Most of these were affiliated with African-American churches or with charities supported by benevolent whites. During the Antebellum Period, only 28 blacks received baccalaureate degrees from a U.S. college or university.
In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation liberated 3.1 million slaves. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen's Bureau) was subsequently established in 1865 and charged with the responsbility to assist former slaves in food, housing, health care and education. The bureau managed and financed federal aid in these matters with the cooperation of the educational efforts of Northern missionary societies and the American Missionary Association (AMA). The AMA alone founded seven black colleges and 13 primary and secondary schools between 1861 and 1870. Between the end of the Civil War and the end of the Reconstruction Era (1863–77), several amendments to the U.S. Constitution were passed that helped extend federal civil rights to all citizens, including nearly 5 million former slaves.
Between 1865 and 1890, church and missionary groups established more than 200 hundred private institutions for the education of blacks in the South. Some of the private schools estabished during this period are still in operation today: Atlanta University (1865) in Atlanta, Georgia; Fisk University (1866) in Nashville, Tennessee; Shaw University (1865) in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Morehouse College (originally the Augusta Institute, 1867) in Atlanta, Georgia. In addition, 16 historically black public (i.e., land grant) colleges were also established during this period under the Morrill Act of 1890, including Howard University and Hampton University.
During the "separate but equal" period of U.S. education (1896–1953), the legalized segregation brought upon by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) strained finances for HBCUs due to the limited pool of funds and resources going to mainstream institutions. HBCUs were able to draw from their own pool of students to provide teachers for secondary schools, which, in turn, fed the institutions with future students. Due to the scarcity of jobs for educated blacks in mainstream society, this segregated cycle of education persisted for several decades.
Today, HBCUs are often viewed apart from conventional institutions of higher education for several reasons. Most were established and persisted in an environment that was sanctioned by legalized segregation and hostility toward the education of African-American minorities. As a result, these institutions were founded under very strict legal, economic and social constraints. As a result, even after many of the legal restrictions of segregation were lifted, HBCUs continued to affiliate with the cause for equality in mainstream society while adopting a somewhat aloof position on integrated education.
HBCUs produced almost 70 percent of all black college graduates up to 1991 and are expected to produce another 300,000 African-American graduates during the next two-and-a-half decades. Despite their historical success in educating African Americans during periods when there were no alternatives, there has been growing pressure to justify the continued operation of majority black institutions. Since educational segregation ended with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), many argue that the continued splitting of limited educational resources for institutions that continue to be racially segregated undermines the overall effort to integrate society. These opponents argue that HBCUs are obsolete, with less than 20 percent of black high school graduates choosing to attend and steadily increasing numbers attending mainstream institutions.
Even more criticism has been lobbied at the relatively lower entry standards that some say pander to a culture of underachievement both in the faculty and student arenas. It has been argued that blacks must become accustomed to competing in an integrated society, rather than one that specially caters to their individual and cultural needs. While school desegreation has enhanced educational opportunities for the vast majority of African Americans in the United States, it is difficult to discount fully the value added by the educational choices offered by HBCUs during the past 150 years.