We must rally to the defense of our schools. We must repudiate this unbearable assumption of the right to kill institutions unless they conform to one narrow standard. 1
W. E.B. Du Bois
The existence of separate, publicly supported colleges for Negroes has embodied a series of legal and educational paradoxes. The public Negro college has been expected to serve the unique educational requirements of black students while it duplicates the curriculum offered to whites. It has been a center both to preserve black culture and to prepare black students for the mainstream of American life. Its separate status has been praised as a way to insure financial security and damned as symbolic of the Negro's inferior condition. Its purpose has been to provide the lowest denominator of practical training and to fulfill the highest aspirations of the Negro race. It has been blamed for being too vocational and berated for not being vocational enough. Its continued existence has been defended as necessary to maintain segregation and as essential to increase integration. Its improvement has been mandated in order to segregate black students and to attract white ones. Its virtues have been hailed by segregationists and its weaknesses condemned by integrationists.
Ambivalence toward the black public college has confounded the definition and implementation of desegregation. Efforts to desegregate public higher education have historically reflected two concerns: the need to overturn legally enforced segregation and the need to maximize educational opportunities for black students. Although overlapping, the two concerns are not identical. The first concern is primarily a question of law: may a state constitutionally condition access to publicly supported education on the basis of race? The second one is a question of educational policy: how can public higher education best meet the needs of black students separated from the mainstream of American life by racial prejudice, cultural differences, and economic and political discrimination.
Passage of the Morrill Act of 1890, along with state segregation laws and the Supreme Court's infamous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, 2 upholding the separate-but-equal doctrine in public transportation, attached a negative racial implication to the positive educational role of black public colleges.