National Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Week: Examining the Modern Relevance of the HBCU

In the United States, this is currently National HBCU Week (presidential proclamation here) and yesterday marked the end of the annual academic conference on HBCUs ("Seizing the Capacity to Thrive!") in Washington, DC. HBCUs span from Michigan and Ohio to Texas, Florida, and the US Virgin Islands - see here for the complete list and links to HBCUs.

Don't feel bad if you've never heard of HBCUs - as noted in my repost from last year, I didn't until I went to college. I've updated the post here and and added a few new morsels of knowledge stemming from my own continuing education about the institutional missions and history of HBCUs.

Of you, always good-looking and erudite reader of Terra Sigillata, I ask that you provide in the comments your own reflections and opinions as well as more current blog links to commentary on the modern relevance of the HBCU. Many of these links are toward the end of this post and I also direct you to last year's comment thread.

When I went away to college after the summer when MTV was first launched, I had never heard of the term, "Historically Black Colleges and Universities." But during the following summer while taking organic chemistry, I lived in a dorm with two visiting HBCU students who were doing internships at a local pharmaceutical company. The gentleman who I grew closest to had come from Hampton University (then-Hampton Institute) in Virginia.

As a Yankee born the same year as the passage of US Civil Rights Act, I had not truly appreciated that African Americans, particularly in the South, had traditionally not been welcome at colleges and universities. As a result, the African American community, sometimes supported by non-black supporters, had to establish their own universities as it was recognized that education was one path to equality. In fact, while nearly all HBCUs are south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the original HBCUs were in Pennsylvania (what is now Cheyney University (1837) and Lincoln University (1854)) and Ohio (Wilberforce University (1856)) and were established by the generosity of Quaker, Episcopalian, and other abolitionist supporters.

I'm still embarrassed by my ignorance back then, in part because my Northeastern high school history classes usually began with the Industrial Revolution and the challenges faced by my post-Civil War, Eastern European immigrant ancestors.

So, I was happy to learn that since 1980, this second week of September (but this first week in 2009) has been designated by the White House as National HBCU Week:

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed Executive Order 12232, which established a Federal program "... to overcome the effects of discriminatory treatment and to strengthen and expand the capacity of historically black colleges and universities to provide quality education." Each President since that time has subsequently issued an Executive Order on HBCUs, with President George W. Bush signing Executive Order 13256, Feb. 12, 2002. (Bush's 2008 proclamation can be found here in PDF).

The preamble of President Obama's 2009 proclamation provides a thoughtful reflection on the role of HBCUs in the United States:

For generations, education has opened doors to untold opportunities and bright futures. Through quality instruction and a personal commitment to hard work, young people in every part of our Nation have gone on to achieve success. Established by men and women of great vision, leadership, and clarity of purpose, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have provided generations of Americans with opportunity, a solid education, and hope.

For more than 140 years, HBCUs have released the power of knowledge to countless Americans. Pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement, HBCUs offer us a window into our Nation's past as well as a path forward. Graduates of HBCUs have gone on to shape the course of American history--from W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T.Washington, to Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall. Today, in twenty States, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, these colleges and universities are serving hundreds of thousands of students from every background and have contributed to the expansion of the African American middle class, to the growth of local communities, and to our Nation's overall economy.

This week, we celebrate the accomplishments of HBCUs and look to the future with conviction and optimism. These institutions will play a key role in reaching our ambitious national education goals, including having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. As our Nation strives toward this goal, we invite HBCUs to employ new, innovative, and ambitious strategies to help the next generation of Americans successfully complete college and prepare themselves for the global economy. During National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week, we recommit ourselves to never resting until equality is real, opportunity is universal, and all citizens can realize their dreams.

Each year about this time, the US Department of Education sponsors a week-long conference in Washington, DC, with specific themes: in 2008, it was HBCUs: Established to Meet a Need, Evolving with the Times, Essential for Today and Tomorrow and in 2009 it's Seizing the Capacity to Thrive!.

The theme implies a harsh reality: that some HBCUs are struggling financially and are fighting to redefine their missions as highly-qualified African Americans now have their pick of the 4,000 or so US colleges and universities. But the continued value of HBCUs is undeniable as pointed out by Michelle J Nealy in Diverse Issues in Higher Education:

While HBCUs represent only 3 percent of all colleges and universities, they enroll close to one-third of all Black students. Forty percent of HBCU students pursue four-year degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, and about half of all Black students in teaching fields attended HBCUs. Three-quarters of all African-American Ph.D.s did their undergraduate studies at an HBCU, and, according to a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, the total economic impact of the nation's HBCUs in 2001 was $10.2 billion.

Another interesting note I learned from Rochelle Rush is that, "Spelman College and Bennett College produce over half of the nation's African American female doctorates in all science fields."

But to go back further, HBCUs played an essential role in the health care of African Americans. The now-defunct Leonard Medical School and School of Pharmacy at Shaw University trained over 400 black physicians between 1881 and 1918, some of whom went on as founders of other universities and all whom addressed the critical role of health care in underserved populations across the Jim Crow South. (Incidentally, Shaw is the oldest HBCU in the South having been founded in 1865 by an ex-Union Army chaplain, Rev Dr Henry Martin Tupper, who returned from Massachusetts with other Northern teachers to establish an educational institution for emancipated slaves. The institution is named after a New England philanthropist, Elijah Shaw.)

i-9171aeec7d6cc5cfc94355b16ec15447-oprah hbcu.jpgHere's a pretty impressive list of well-known HBCU graduates including this Chicago businesswoman, a graduate of Tennessee State University.

Kim Clark noted in her February 2009 US News & World Report article that HBCUs represent a fabulous and cost-effective opportunity for all students, regardless of ethnic and geographical background:

Milton Brown, now a professor of experimental therapeutics at Georgetown University, says he knows firsthand how HBCUs like his alma mater, Oakwood University in Alabama, "take students other schools will not accept, and from that pool can rise very talented students who were late bloomers or came from single-parent homes or backgrounds of poverty."

By the way, Milton Brown, MD, PhD is not just a professor at Georgetown but he is Director of the Drug Discovery Program of the Lombardi Cancer Center at the Georgetown University Medical Center.

Nevertheless, the Afrosphere is full of students and alumni debating whether HBCUs have relevance today. As New Orleans-based journalist blogger, Raving Black Lunatic, noted recently:

At any gathering of black people, either in person or on the web, the issue of whether it's better to attend a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) or a mainstream university is pretty much guaranteed to come up at some point.

Being of Eastern European heritage as I noted above, I feel that it would be presumptuous of me to take a side in this issue, although whiteness hasn't prevented some others from doing so (see On My Mind for a couple of video examples.) So, here are just a few of the blogosphere posts on the topic:

Bourgie Adventures is written by one graduate of a large state university describes how she didn't miss out on "THE black experience" by not going to a HBCU.

Albany State graduate student dc1128 describes some of her/his frustrations with HBCUs and closes as follows:

I had a road rage incident where I shouted at the other driver. My daughter said, "Daddy, why do you yell at your own people?" I replied, "Your own people are the ones that do you the worst." These incidents are not dispelling that theory. is kind of in the middle with, "Are HBCUs Obsolete?," but leans in support of his own experience. This post is probably the most informative of all, with nearly 30 reader comments.

On the other side, one of my new favorite blogs, Keeping up with the Jonzee, makes a strong case about the need for HBCUs beginning with this statement:

I stand by my conviction that HBCU's are necessary, important and valuable. And this comes from a woman who went to a majority, expensive-ass "elite" school.

Judge Joe Webster at Making a Difference at Howard U cites the importance of HBCUs throughout his career.

In the peer-reviewed literature, this Cell Biology Education article by Dr Steve Suits notes that HBCUs "are meeting a national science imperative." This post at Historiann cites a NSF study that points to the importance of HBCUs in producing African American STEM Ph.D.s

The discussion thread on this post at The HBCU Republication Connection (yes, HBCU Republicans) provides more insight on this question.

But the best quote I found came from a magazine, not a blog. George E. Curry wrote last year in the Chicago Defender,

Do we still need Historically Black Colleges and Universities? It's a question that even some Blacks are asking. Interestingly, those same people never ask whether Catholics still need Notre Dame or whether women still need Wellesley College?

For more information on National HBCU Week, please go to the US Department of Education webpage devoted to the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

More 2009 HBCU links:
US Coast Guard HBCU Partnership - iCommandant by USCG Admiral Thad Allen
2009 Lecture Summary of White House HBCU Initiative Executive Director, John S Wilson - The Academy Speaks by Dr Marybeth Gasman - Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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I have no experience with HBCU; but I have questioned the need for all-female and religion-biased schools. (I am not talking about the schools that teach everything as religion-based- I mean those schools that are anchored in religion yet provide good education.) From what I have heard, it seems enthusiasm (or, lack of it) is based in feel-good philosophy.

I have questioned female chemists who have attended co-ed schools and women-only schools about the differences. Those who attended female-only schools thought there was a vaguely important difference, those who went to co-ed schools thought that was nonsense. What I mean by "vague" is that I doubt there is clear evidence in sociological literature.

The same goes for the dean of a top-notch (religion-associated) college who told me that he thinks that a non-christian cannot be a good chemistry professor. I'd like to see the literature on that, not that I can critique sociology literature.

I think there are schools that do good by catering to definable groups; but not based on genetics. For example, I worked full-time and went to school at night. Today you call them "non-traditional students"- we called ourselves "Lifers". At the time, many colleges put a time-limit on graduation; but the school accommodated us by lifting the limit- one guy I knew spent 20 years on his B.A.

Community Colleges cater to people who have full-time jobs, as well as remedial courses for people with inadequate preparation for college. The best course I ever taught was organic chemistry for a nursing school. The point was not to make scientists out of them, just to get them to understand medicine is not magic.

So, my unstudied opinion is that specialized schools that cater to demonstrated needs are useful, those that follow some vague ideal are comforting to those that adhere to that ideal.