In 1912, nine college administrators gathered on the campus of Hampton Institute to discuss collegiate athletics at Black institutions of higher learning. The result of this meeting was the formation of the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association, the first athletic conference designated for Black collegiate sports.
A century later, the CIAA (now the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association) is still around and is one of four NCAA-recognized conferences made up completely or predominantly of historically Black colleges and universities. The others include: the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, formed in 1913; the Southwestern Athletic Conference, formed in 1920; and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, formed in 1970.
At the time, the formation of an athletic league composed specifically of institutions designed for African-Americans made sense, if only as an extension of the logic that formed HBCUs in the first place. African-Americans were shunned from all of mainstream American life in the early part of the 20th century. And in the South, where the majority of Black colleges and universities were located, the Black community may as well have been on another planet.
More than a century later, however, much has changed in the country as a whole and at the institutions that compose the CIAA, SIAC, SWAC and MEAC.
The United States just re-elected a president, who 100 years ago, not only would have been limited to an all-Black institution, but he would not have been able to vote for himself. As a result of integration efforts that started in the Jim Crow era, institutions of higher learning are no longer allowed to discriminate based on race, gender or religion. And Black student-athletes are front and center at many of the institutions that would not allow them in the front door just 50 years ago.
It has been well-documented that Black institutions of higher learning, both state-funded and privately run, have been under-funded since their inceptions. Private schools had to rely largely on the pockets of White philanthropists, while state-funded institutions have traditionally received a smaller piece of the pie compared to their peer majority institutions.
"I don't think if Alabama or Texas or LSU had been underfunded for a century, they would be in the position that they are," says Dr. Dennis Thomas, MEAC commissioner.
Despite their financial struggles, HBCUs have produced some of the most talented athletes to ever carry a football or shoot a basketball. Prior to the late 1960s, and in some cases the mid1970s, the overwhelming majority of Black athletes seeking to compete in collegiate athletics were restricted to Black colleges.
Former North Carolina Central football star and current Winston-Salem State athletic director Bill Hayes told ESPN in a 2007 article that in his day, playing for a majority institution was unthinkable. Especially in the South.
This race-based division was not necessarily a bad thing; it allowed smaller HBCUs an opportunity to recruit standout talent. For example, today Grambling State would have to compete with the likes of LSU or Alabama for the services of a future Hall of Fame talent like Willie Davis. Back in the '50s and '60s, Davis would have likely had to choose between either Grambling or Southern, but there was no chance of him landing in the SEC. The same with Florida A&M'S Bob Hayes, Morgan State's Willie Lanier and countless others.
The story was the same on the basketball court. NBA all-time greats like Willis Reed (Grambling), Sam Jones (North Carolina Central), Bobby Dandridge (Norfolk State) and Earl "The Pearl" Monroe (Winston-Salem State) landed at HBCUs because few college basketball teams recruited Black athletes.
Today, however, change has come. A 2011 report by the NCAA revealed that 48.5 percent of Division I college football players are now African-American. …