Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Honoring the Past, Engaging the Present, Touching the Future

Article excerpt

This article examines the history, present, and future of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). We begin with a brief review of the existing literature on HBCUs, considering common themes and how these institutions changed over time within a broader sociohistorical landscape. In addition to historical information, we use a national database to illuminate trends and shifts in the students choosing to attend, and being served by, these institutions. We close by considering new challenges that face these institutions, addressing how HBCUs are positioned to move forward with their important mission of educating the Black community.

"Education is thus simply the means by which a society prepares, in its children, the essential conditions of its own existence." (Emile Durkheim, 1972, p. 203)

"Education will set this tangle straight." (W. E. B. Du Bois, 1903/1989, p. 76)

"When you control a man's thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions." Carter G. Woodson (1933, p. xiii)

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have been at the center of the Black struggle for equality and dignity. The American ethos idealizes education and personal achievement over birthright as the sole basis for one's place in society-except for African Americans. We have always been judged by the color of our skin, denied equal educational opportunity, and told the educational gap between Blacks and Whites was the reason for our subjugated status in society. It is therefore not surprising that education has been a key site for Black struggle. For African Americans, education embodies not only a means toward gaining equality and progress, but the very essence of citizenship and pereonhood. We have pursued higher education with faith, perseverance and desperation, absolutely convinced that the keys to our deliverance from racial oppression lay hidden in the pages of books we were forbidden to read.

As the opening quotes attest, HBCUs play important roles in the perpetuation of Black culture, the improvement of Black community life, and the preparation of the next generation of the Black leadership. Durkheim's quote reminds us that above all, education is culturally specific; education is rooted in and reflects the conditions, worldview and purposes of its parent society. In this respect, HBCUs have been profoundly shaped by the circumstances (historical, economic, political, and cultural) that define Black lives and communities in America. Du Bois's quote highlights the mandate for these institutions to engage the world, improve the circumstances of Black people and challenge the nation to realize its highest ideals. Finally, the quote from Woodson emphasizes the transformative power of education and the responsibility of HBCUs to empower individuals to change lives, their communities, and society. This has been the daunting charge to this unique group of institutions of higher learning; they have been called to preserve a culture, prosper a community, equip a new generation of leaders, and model what is best about America.

The dawning of the 21st century is an appropriate moment to consider the trends, prospects, and challenges of HBCUs. In this article, we reassess the past, present, and future role of HBCUs while advocating the need for a perspective that considers how they function as institutions within a social system characterized by multiple forms of oppression. Specifically, we attempt an analysis of HBCUs that stresses the frequent, systemic interactions among race, gender, and class in the historical and contemporary eras. We close by considering new challenges that face these institutions and addressing how HBCUs are positioned to go forward with their important mission of educating the Black community with the goal to change American society for the better.


The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was one of the most far-reaching in American history. …


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