Churches, philanthropists, free and enslaved blacks establish colleges and universities to educate their masses
When Tamika Thomas took a field trip to Cheyney University of Pennsylvania as an elementary school student, she left campus knowing where she wanted to go to college.
Thomas, who graduated from Cheyney in 1994, is currently a psychology professor at the university.
“I walked into Cheyney’s science building and saw various African American students studying and having fun on campus,” Thomas said. “When it came time to choose a college, I remembered the Cheyney visit I had. They have a rich tradition as a faculty. I knew Cheyney was where I wanted to be.”
Cheyney, formerly known as the Institute for Colored Youth, is the oldest of all Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the country. In 1837, Quaker philanthropist Richard Humphreys founded Cheyney.
Humphreys bequeathed a tenth of his estate to design and build a school to educate people of African descent with a mandate to train teachers and prepare workers for trade.
The HBCU was founded in the USA in the early 19th century with the aim of providing people of African descent with higher education. The majority of HBCUs were founded by philanthropists, free black people, and churches.
“Cheyney has always been committed to educating and nurturing young people to give them a solid foundation to stand on,” said Thomas. “That was the case in 1837 and 185 years later it is at the core of everything we do now.”
In the 1850s, three more HBCUs were formed after Cheyney. The Miner Normal School was founded in Washington, DC in 1851. Originally founded as The Ashmun Institute, Lincoln University received its charter from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1854, making it the nation’s first HBCU degree.
It was the first institution in the world to provide higher education in arts and sciences to black male youth. In 1896, the institution was renamed Lincoln University in honor of President Abraham Lincoln.
The oldest private HBCU in the country is Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio, founded in 1856 through a collaboration between two Methodist denominations and the city of Cincinnati. When enrollment dropped due to the Civil War, the school was purchased by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, becoming the first college owned and operated by African Americans.
“Lincoln University began as a small seminary,” said Daryl Poe, a professor at Lincoln University. “As the institution added more schools, it became popular for training a number of black preachers, doctors and lawyers.
“The university later became a mixed institution in the 1950s,” Poe said. “Some of our graduates made history in Black history, including Saara Kuugongelwa, Namibia’s first female Prime Minister.
“Right now we’re a predominantly female institution,” Poe added. “More than 60% of our enrolled students are female, and a significant number of them have developed stronger international ties with the Caribbean and Africa.”
More than 90 HBCUs were established between 1861 and 1900. Founded in 1865 in Raleigh, North Carolina, Shaw University is the first black college organized after the Civil War.
Two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, most HBCUs were founded in 1867. The nine HBCUs established that year include Morehouse College, Alabama State University, Morgan State University, and Howard University, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
HBCUs in the South were formed after Emancipation and the end of the Civil War due to support from the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal organization that operated during Reconstruction to help the formerly enslaved adjust to freedom.
The second Morrill Act of 1890 also required states, particularly the former Confederate states, to provide land grants to institutions for black students when admission was not permitted elsewhere, according to the Britannica Encyclopedia.
About 89% of all HBCUs are located in the southern region of the US. However, they can also be found in Illinois, Ohio, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Delaware.
According to the Thurgood Good Marshall College Fund, the state of North Carolina has 11 HBCUs, Louisiana has seven, and Alabama has 12. In 1965, HBCUs were officially designated OF WHAT by the US Department of Education, according to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
Delaware State University, formerly known as the Delaware College for Colored Students, was founded in 1891 by the Delaware General Assembly.
In 1939, the state of Delaware was one of six HBCUs designated to train black pilots. West Virginia State College, Howard University, Tuskegee Institute, Hampton Institute, and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College were also designated as training institutions.
“The state of Delaware trained black pilots for World War II before military consolidated training took place in Tuskegee, Alabama,” Delaware State Aviation Programs Director. Lt. Col Michael Hales told the Philadelphia Tribune in 2022.
“We have students from our small college who were part of that original group of Tuskegee Airmen. We celebrate by painting the tails of our planes red, and the university is building on that long legacy to provide opportunities for its students today,” added Hales.
Today there are 101 HBCUs nationwide. Throughout their history, HBCUs have trained 80% of the country’s black judges, 50% of black doctors, 40% of black congressmen and 40% of engineers. Although HBCUs make up 3% of the nation’s colleges and universities, they produce 13% of all African American graduates.
HBCUs have also developed more programming since their inception. According to the United Negro College Fund, nearly 59% of HBCUs offer undergraduate, 41% graduate, and 28% doctoral degrees.
While HBCUs have definitely evolved over the years, they’ve also had their share of historical challenges, including inadequate funding, staggered enrollment, delayed maintenance, and accreditation issues.
“There’s been a drop in HBCUs because of the financial recession,” Poe said. “Part of the problem is that some HBCUs have tried to imitate community colleges and other institutions that have more resources. HOW DID YOU IMMIT COMMUNITY COLLEGES
“I think some HBCUs will need to close over time due to integration and recession,” Poe said. “That will be the HBCUs already teetering on the fiscal limit of survival.
“The future of HBCUs will be about HBCUs reconnecting with their ancestral and cultural bases and beginning to act as cultural emissaries for a United Africa and United Caribbean,” Poe added.
Thomas believes HBCUs will shift more towards STEM and online learning in the future.
“I see our universities becoming more focused on STEM and developing more partnerships with graduate schools to create a larger pipeline if the school doesn’t already have an affiliated graduate school,” Thomas said.
“We also have the opportunity to show our footprint in online learning,” Thomas added. “Rather than HBCU students just being educated in brick and mortar buildings, we should create our own online presence where students can pursue their education online if they choose to.”