Historical Background and Future Prospects of Black Colleges and Universities, Speech

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Excerpt:

Let me begin with a very brief historical overview because it helps us, I think, to understand the present status of the black colleges and universities and the public policies affecting them.

With two exceptions—Lincoln and Wilberforce Universities—the black colleges and universities were established after the Civil War. They were established, in the main, by three different groups: The predominantly white northern church denominations and organizations, the black church denominations and the southern states.

The white northern denominations and organizations established the majority colleges and universities during the first decade following the war, 1865-1875. Included in this group of institutions were Atlanta University, Fisk, Howard, Johnson C. Smith, Shaw University, St. Augustine’s, Talledega, Virginia Union, among others.

It is important to recall that when the Civil War ended, 96 percent of the 4 million newly freed blacks were illiterate and that there were no schools to provide the college preparatory work. The newly established institutions were thus colleges and universities in name only – the hopes and dreams of their founders. They had pitifully few facilities, having begun their work in churches, hospital barracks, abandoned railroad cars and various other temporary accommodations.

Instruction in these institutions necessarily began at the elementary school level. But most of these institutions went on to develop academies to provide college preparatory work. These academies were gradually phased out as black public schools were established. This did not occur on any large scale until the 1920’s and 30’s. I am, for example, a 1930 graduate of the Hampton Institute Academy, in next to its last class.

It is important to recall that when the Civil War ended, 96 percent of the 4 million newly freed blacks were illiterate and that there were no schools to provide the college preparatory work. The newly established institutions were thus colleges and universities in name only – the hopes and dreams of their founders. They had pitifully few facilities, having begun their work in churches, hospital barracks, abandoned railroad cars and various other temporary accommodations.

Instruction in these institutions necessarily began at the elementary school level. But most of these institutions went on to develop academies to provide college preparatory work. These academies were gradually phased out as black public schools were established. This did not occur on any large scale until the 1920’s and 30’s. I am, for example, a 1930 graduate of the Hampton Institute Academy, in next to its last class.

The next major group of colleges to be established were those established by the black church denominations. This group was established for the most part in the second decade following the Civil War, 1875-1885. The group included such institutions as Allen University, Morris Brown, Lane, Livingstone, Philander Smith, among others.

Beginning also about 1875, the southern states began the establishment of colleges for blacks and continued to do so until by 1891, every southern state except South Carolina and Tennessee had at least one public college for blacks. South Carolina and Tennessee established their black institutions in 1896 and 1912, respectively. Black public colleges have, of course, been added since that time. North Carolina Central University for example, was purchased by the State in the 1920’s; Fort Valley State College, Morgan and Jackson State Universities were purchased during the 1930’s by Georgia, Maryland, and Mississippi, respectively. Mississippi Valley State College and Texas Southern Universities were established as late as 1946 and 1947 respectively.

II.
Let us turn briefly to the missions of these new institutions. The principal mission of the private black colleges was the development of leaders, especially teachers—a critically urgent need at the time. The content of the programs, however, emphasized the liberal arts. In other words, they were patterned basically after the colleges from which their northern missionary teachers came, especially those institutions established during the first decade following the Civil War. The conspicuous exception was Hampton Institution which introduced a strong vocational emphasis they called “Industrial Education.”

Hampton with it “industrial education” philosophy was later joined by Tuskegee under the leadership of the eloquent Booker T. Washington, a graduate of Hampton, a member of the class of 1875. The influence of Hampton and Tuskegee so dominated the education of blacks that many of the institutions attempted to emulate them in order to share the philanthropic generosity which Hampton and Tuskegee enjoyed. As late as 1950, the combined endowments of Hampton and Tuskegee exceeded the endowments of all of the other black institutions combined!

It was the spread of the idea of vocational education as the best type of education for blacks, which was also embraced by the southern states, that gave rise to the so-called Booker T. Washington-W.E.B. DuBois controversy—DuBois believing essentially in the higher education of the “Talented Tenth” by means of the liberal arts.

The mission of the public black institutions reflected the deep reservations that southern whites held, at the time, concerning the educability of blacks and was limited almost entirely to teacher training. With the designation of the 17 land-grant colleges, following the passage of the second Morrill Act in 1890, the second emphasis was vocational – “agricultural and mechanical,” the mechanical meaning primary trades. In fact, the only public black institutions with strong liberal arts until about 1940 were North Carolina Central and Morgan State Universities, both purchased as ongoing institutions as already indicated.

Until the Supreme Court’s Gaines decision was handed down in 1938—a decision to which we will return—no black public college offered any graduate or professional work. Nor did any public black college have a school of engineering. The policy of the southern states was to operate the black colleges as cheaply as possible. There was no real pretense about separate being equal.

But even after Gaines, the degree programs in public black colleges were extremely limited. Until 1983, only four states—North Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas—provided schools of engineering in black colleges. Maryland joined the group in 1983 with a school at Morgan State University. The fact that degree programs were so limited makes the enhancement of these institutions difficult and expensive not to mention the duplication involved.

Source Citation:

Wright, Stephen J. 1987. “Historical Background and Future Prospects of Black Colleges and Universities” (Speech). In Essential Documents in the History of American Higher Education, edited by John R. Thelin, 96-105. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cite this page:

Wright, Stephen J.. 1987. "Historical Background and Future Prospects of Black Colleges and Universities, Speech." History of Higher Education. https://higheredhistory.gmu.edu/primary-sources/historical-background-and-future-prospects-of-black-colleges-and-universities-speech/