On the Topic of Black History: Exploring the Legacy of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Every year during Black History Month, the higher education community turns its eyes to America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which have a rich significance that extends far beyond what tends to make headline news. These institutions are enriched by a history that begins with resilience in the face of racism and oppression and has deepened into a legacy of education, service, and support above all. In celebration of this month, we’re taking a deep dive into the history of HBCUs — and how their past informs their present and future.

Written by Packback

HBCUs began after the civil war and developed as safe havens for Black people who were left out of a racist higher education system that severely limited their access to primary and secondary education. The first HBCU, founded in Pennsylvania in 1837, was Cheyney University (originally The African Institute). The University was founded by Richard Humphreys, a philanthropist who designated one-tenth of his estate for the sole purpose of educating Black students and preparing them to be teachers. At its inception, the focus of Cheyney’s programming was on teaching trade and agricultural skills, which were the nation’s economic backbone at the time.

As HBCUs have evolved over more than 180 years, these institutions have transformed what the possibility of education looks like for those who have often been left behind by America’s “traditional” education system. With a vastly different approach to education, HBCUs rose from racism to become necessary anchors of support for Black people in America. 

Today, there are 101 HBCUs across the U.S. Some of the most well-known include Howard University in Washington D.C, Spelman College in Georgia, and Hampton University in Virginia. While these may be the most familiar, there are a number of HBCUs with a notable history; Morgan State University is responsible for graduating the highest number of Black engineers in Maryland, and the iconic American writer, Langston Hughes, attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

HBCUs makeup only 3% of our nation’s education system and enroll only 10% of all African American students, yet they account for around 20% of African American college graduates. In total, HBCUs have a $14.8 billion annual impact on America’s economy, an impact equivalent to achieving a top 200 ranking on the Fortune 500 list of our nation’s largest corporations. It is clear that HBCUs see unmatched success rates as a direct result of educational practices that don’t recognize student needs as deficiencies, but rather that highlight the unique experiences of Black students and create multiple pathways to success. 

HBCUs have survived an endless scope of historical challenges: Jim Crow, inadequate funding, deferred maintenance, and accreditation issues among them. Their survival in spite of these issues is not, however, by chance. HBCUs began as a safe haven for students who were denied access to education by racist policies, and continue to carry that legacy, serving students from diverse backgrounds who seek an education rooted in the fundamental principles of equality, resilience, and service to community. In 2018, non-Black students accounted for 24% of total enrollment at HBCUs, proving that the immense value of the HBCU experience is not just applicable to Black students. 

To learn more about what the experience is like today, we spoke to Jasmine Marealle, Revenue Analyst at Packback and a recent graduate of Howard University. For Jasmine, the Howard experience emphasized the importance of learning through a multicultural lens. Professors in Jasmine’s courses reflected the same diversity she saw in the student body, and course concepts acknowledged the unique life experiences of Black students. “At an HBCU, you’re able to learn in a way that is relatable to you. If you put me in a class where there is no one who looks or acts like me I’m either going to excel or fall under. There is no room for performance that falls in-between.” 

It is this unique approach to education, shaped by the essential understanding that learning is not a linear process and cultural experiences shape the way in which we learn, that has made HBCUs an unmatched breeding ground for success and opportunity among students from all backgrounds. 

The promise of attending an HBCU is one of deepened understanding of self, representation, and the chance to expand history. Jasmine’s experience at Howard is just one example of this promise. “There’s this common misconception that attending an HBCU means you’ll be meeting thousands of the same person, but it’s just not true. My experience showed me how diverse we are as a people, and opened my eyes to everything that is possible for Black women.”

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