Historically Black Colleges & Universities

Public Higher Education Superstar

Medgar Evers, Alcorn State University graduate and field secretary of the Mississippi NAACP. White supremacists assassinated him in 1963 because of his leadership on behalf of racial equality and voter registration.

Thurgood Marshall, left, with client Donald Gaines Murray, who was denied entry into the University of Maryland Law School, and another attorney, probably Howard University Professor of Law Charles H. Hutson during court proceedings, Maryland, c. 1935.

When freedom came to African-Americans after the Civil War, freedmen and women wanted education. At first, the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association started schools like the Hampton Institute and Morehouse College. Prior to 1890 only one African-American college, Alcorn State in Mississippi, received federal funds from the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862.

The second Morrill Act of 1890 increased access for African- Americans, but at a steep price: maintenance of segregated land-grant colleges in 17 southern and border states.

The historically African-American public colleges and universities demonstrated a remarkable record for innovations in such areas as nutrition, agriculture and animal husbandry, and made substantial contributions in teacher education. Alumni provided most of the public school teachers and administrators who educated subsequent generations of African-American children, often in the segregated public school systems.

Alumni also influenced the future of higher education in their quest for advanced degrees. States initially created segregated graduate programs or gave African-American students scholarships to study in the North. African-Americans’ demands for graduate training became the basis in the 1930s and 40s for Supreme Court cases to desegregate graduate and professional schools, which laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education.

Florida A & M doctor and student measuring methionine in 200 peanut varieties using amino acid analyzer, c. 1990.

After all state universities had desegregated in the late 1960s, the historically African-American public institutions feared that the newly accessible flagship universities would recruit African-American high school graduates who were their traditional constituency. “In fact,” according to education historian John Thelin, “over the past 20 years public Historically Black Colleges and Universities have maintained a relatively strong record in retaining and graduating African-American students. Most remarkable about this record of achievement over a century and a half is that the schools have fared well despite ongoing institutionalized racism and chronic under-funding.”

Student at Prairie View A&M University, Texas, in Cooperative Agricultural Research Center, c. 2005.
Students at the Colored Normal, Agricultural and Mechanical College of South Carolina (now South Carolina State University), Orangeburg, South Carolina, with new power plant in Industrial Hall, 1916.
Agricultural students at Prairie View A&M University feeding goats, c. 2005.
Graduating Class of the Florida State Normal and Industrial School, (later became Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University), Tallahassee, Florida, 1904.