Before the Civil War, higher education for Black students was virtually nonexistent. The limited number of Black folks who did receive schooling often had to endure hostile circumstances or teach themselves. Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) were created to provide access to higher educational opportunities for many Black people and still play a critical role in contributing to humanity and transforming the terrain of higher education. Even though the majority of HBCUs were not founded by Black people, we have since led and transformed the institutions created in spite of the white supremacists who didn’t (and still don’t) deem us valuable or deserving of a quality education. But just like the fate and destiny of our people, HBCUs have persevered and transcended — leading some of the best research, law schools, organizations and movements the world has ever seen.
Among the many contributions that HBCU graduates have made, the civil rights movement is at the forefront. From the KKK threatening to burn down Bethune-Cookman University (the only HBCU Founded by a Black woman), then known as the Daytona Beach Industrial School for Girls in 1904, to the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) being founded in 1960 at the HBCU Shaw University after Ella Baker hosted a conference to organize a sit-in movement. HBCUs, particularly ones in the South, participated in and organized sit-ins, protests, freedom rides, the 1963 March on Washington, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and so much more.
Not only have HBCUs made significant contributions to liberation movements, but they are also usually at the center of many communities that foster the culture of neighborhoods. I can guarantee you that no matter what HBCU you visit (well, maybe not now because of gentrification), the community is surrounded by Black folks. Children grow up learning about and wanting to be apart of this pro-Black culture, and generations of families will say, with pride, that they attended the same HBCU. Students at HBCUs have helped uplift Blackness and fight for Black liberation for a very long time.
HBCUs are still holding on to our values and are still making strides in the liberation of Black people today. For example, Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, a pioneer of Black feminism, graduated from Spelman College. She ended up returning to her alma mater and became the founding director of Spelman’s Women Resource & Research Center, the only HBCU to have a resource and research center and comparative gender studies program.
This Black History month, I challenge you to research the HBCU closest to where you grew up or live now, and just learn about them! I’m sure that there have been contributions made from someone who attended that HBCU in a topic you’re interested in or passionate about. Whether you went to a PWI or HBCU, if you’re kinfolk, you are apart of the glue that makes HBCUs still significant today.
— written by Trinice McNally, BYP100 DC activist