Peril or Promise: The Effect of Desegregation Litigation on Historically Black Colleges

Article excerpt

"Once upon a time in my younger years and in the dawn of this century I wrote: `The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.' ... In 1925, as in 1899, I seem to see the problem of the twentieth century as the problem of the color line" (DuBois, 1925, p. 423).

The "color line" that has separated Blacks from Whites in higher education has not been erased. Despite increasing numbers of African Americans attending college, legal and ethical debates still persist about the methods for integration of some predominantly White institutions (PWIs). Moreover, the impact of this litigation on historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) is a new and growing factor of concern in the equation, and potentially threatens their future. To understand these tensions, it is important to have a true appreciation for the historical origins of segregated higher education and the legal battle to abolish it.

Unlike their White counterparts, HBCUs have never practiced race based admissions policies (Ware, 1994). They were devised and implemented by White segregationists as a means to secure the separation by race in higher education. Now, however, continuing court battles in such states as Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi have focused attention of policy makers on desegregation issues affecting these colleges. In addition, the current debate over affirmative action has called into question the ability or resolve of White colleges to achieve their goals of racial balance.

Courts have recently folded publicly funded HBCUs into statewide remedies to cure illegal segregation in White colleges, although such separation never existed in HBCUs. These legal mandates require states to enhance opportunities for non-African American students, thereby reducing their racial identifiability. As a result, questions abound about the current and future role of publicly funded Black institutions. Understandably, advocates of HBCUs fear that such changes may lead to the loss of the important role that these institutions have played in educating generations of African Americans. At the same time, predominantly White institutions (PWIs) are required to admit and graduate a greater proportion of African Americans, thereby reducing the need for HBCUs. The more opportunities there are for Black students at PWIs, the greater the threat to HBCUs. To the extent that equal educational opportunity is achieved, both HBCUs and PWIs stand to lose their essential historic character. Race always has been, and remains, a highly polarized issue in this country. Rational discussion will benefit from firm grounding in understanding the complexity of some of the attendant policy and legal issues.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities

For more than 150 years, HBCUs have provided the best chance, and at times the only chance, for access to education for African American students in higher education. African American participation in America's majority institutions in substantial numbers is a fairly new phenomena. As recently as twenty years ago, the majority of African Americans in college were in HBCUs. By the 1980s, however, the lifeblood of HBCUs seemed to be draining; nonetheless, effective recruitment efforts, separatist trends, and stronger academic programs have led to a resurgence in enrollments. There are 103 HBCUs, including 2- and 4-year colleges, representing 2.8% of the total 3688 institutions of higher education in the U.S. In 1993, 282,856 students attended HBCUs, a 32% increase from 1982 (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 1995). Of the 1.4 million African Americans in college, 16.4% attend HBCUs.

HBCUs have a long and rich tradition of non-racial admissions policies and have educated significant numbers of women, Whites, nonresident aliens, and other ethnic minorities. For example, the first treaty provision for the education of Native Americans was an agreement in 1830, providing scholarships for Choctaw Nation students to attend Hampton Institute, a Negro normal school (Olivas, 1982). …