African American Studies Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States
Crystal Sanders
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0088


Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States total more than one hundred, including public and private institutions, two-year and four-year schools, medical schools, law schools, and community colleges. These institutions provided educational opportunities to black students during the era of legal segregation when southern white institutions prohibited black students and northern white institutions admitted only a few black students, if any at all. The Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, defines an HBCU as “any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association.” The first HBCU, now called Cheyney University, was founded in Pennsylvania in 1837, although most black colleges were founded after the Civil War and are located in the South. Many HBCUs have religious affiliations. The African Methodist Episcopal Church established several schools, including Morris Brown College, Paul Quinn College, Wilberforce University, and Edward Waters College. The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (renamed the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1950s) and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church set up black colleges as well. Northern white benevolent groups, including the American Missionary Association and the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen, also founded black colleges. Black colleges stand out for the social, cultural, political, and economic contributions they have made to the world. Some of the most well-known writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson received their training at HBCUs. Six historically black Greek-lettered organizations were founded on black college campuses. A host of the most successful coaches and athletes in American history developed their skills and set records at these institutions. Despite these successes, many HBCUs faced extreme financial hardship and declining enrollment beginning in the 1970s because of desegregation in higher education. Interestingly, black students began to enroll at white institutions in large numbers during this period because of the successful efforts of HBCU graduates to dismantle Jim Crow. In the 21st century, HBCUs enroll students of every ethnicity and nationality. The list of HBCU alumni who have made significant contributions to the United States and to the world is long. Notable graduates include US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Toni Morrison, US Senator Kamala Harris, and Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president.

General Overviews

The most thorough presentation of the history of historically black colleges and universities and the role these institutions have played in shaping the United States is Favors 2019. Other comprehensive histories of these institutions and topical organization of some of the major themes and contributions of black colleges include Bullock 1967, Williams and Ashley 2004, and Lovett 2011. A very nuanced history of the early funding challenges and curriculum debates surrounding HBCUs can be found in Anderson 1988. Discussion of contemporary challenges facing black colleges is available in Betsey 2008 and Gasman and Tudico 2008. It is important to note that historically black colleges and universities are not monolithic, and Lovett 2011 and Roebuck and Murty 1993 effectively convey this. While not a book, the PBS documentary Tell Them We Are Rising (Nelson and William 2017) provides a historical introduction to the significance and contributions of black colleges and universities.

  • Anderson, James D. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

    A seminal work arguing that education is central to freedom for African Americans. Provides a sweeping survey of the conflicting thoughts among black southerners, white planters, and northern businessmen about the purposes of black education. Special attention is given to the industrial education models of Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Institute.

  • Betsey, Charles L. ed., Historically Black Colleges and Universities. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2008.

    Volume grew out of a National Economic Association meeting session on black colleges. Topics covered include media coverage of black colleges, student achievement and faculty productivity at black colleges, and the role of outside funding for these institutions.

  • Bullock, Henry Allen. A History of Negro Education in the South: From 1619 to the Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

    Chronologically arranged study of black education in the South from the colonial era to the mid-1960s. While much attention is given to slavery, the founding and importance of black colleges is covered.

  • Favors, Jelani. Shelter in the Time of Storm: How Black Colleges Fostered Generations of Leadership and Activism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

    An exploration of the ways HBCUs have provided educational advancement for black students and developed generations of black activists at the forefront of black freedom struggles.

  • Gasman, Marybeth, and Christopher L. Tudico. Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Triumphs, Troubles, and Taboos. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    Anthology of essays exploring contemporary black colleges, including chapters on colorism and classism on black college campuses and on the role of black colleges in preparing black students for graduate study at Ivy League institutions.

  • Lovett, Bobby. America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A Narrative History from the Nineteenth Century into the Twenty-First Century. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2011.

    Details the creation of both public and private black colleges. To show diversity among historically black colleges, the book offers narrative descriptions about individual institutions, including synopses about their founding, educational mission, and financial resources.

  • Roebuck, Julien B., and Komanduri S. Murty. Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Their Place in American Higher Education. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993.

    After proving a brief history of HBCUs, the book offers readers a profile of major black college colleges and examines key debates about the place of HBCUs in higher education.

  • Nelson, Stanley, and Marco William, dirs. Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities. DVD. New York: Firelight Films, 2017.

    Documentary on the history of black colleges and universities with alumni interviews, historians’ commentary, and rare footage from black campuses.

  • Williams, Juan and Dwayne Ashley. I’ll Find a Way or Make One. New York: Amistad, 2004.

    The book provides a nuanced overview of the development of HBCUs from the 19th century to the present complete with photographs and personal memoirs.

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