A History of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been at the center of the American story for over 180 years — socially and economically.

Many notable Black Americans have attended HBCUs including, Vice President Kamala Harris (Howard University), Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse College), the first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Lincoln University, Howard University), and NFL Hall of Famer and TV Host Michael Strahan (Texas Southern University).
Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities [and Black America]
Written & directed by Stanley Nelson
Co-directed by Marco Williams
Produced by Firelight Media
Learn more / View the full film

The Beginning
After the Civil War (1861-1865), HBCUs emerged to provide Black Americans the most basic of human rights — access to a full education.

Prior to the Civil War, the education of Black Americans was prohibited in most Southern states and often discouraged in Northern states resulting in only a few Black schools being in existence — Cheyney University (est. 1837), University of the District of Columbia (1851), Lincoln University (1854), and Wilberforce University (1856).

Most of our nation's HBCUs were started by philanthropists and free Blacks; Southern states at the behest of the federal government; and religious organizations such as the American Missionary Association (AMA) and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.


"At a time when many schools barred their doors to Black Americans, these colleges [HBCUs] offered the best, and often the only, opportunity for a higher education."
President George H.W. Bush
April 28, 1989

By and large, the first HBCUs were established to educate the children of formerly enslaved people and train them to teach other Black Americans.

Because HBCUs were the only schools available to most Black Americans, they often provided primary, secondary, and postsecondary education.
African American Higher Education
a 2-minute history of HBCUs
Hosted & Produced by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Additional Commentary by Brittney Cooper
Produced by Robert F. Smith, Dyllan McGee, Deon Taylor
Made by Black History in Two Minutes

The Renaissance
From the late 1800s to the late 1900s, HBCUs thrived and provided refuge from laws and public policy that prohibited Black Americans from attending most colleges and universities.

HBCUs provided undergraduate training for 75% of all Black Americans holding a doctorate degree; 75% of all Black officers in the armed forces; and 80% of all Black federal judges. (U.S. Department of Education)

Before higher education was desegregated in the 1950s and 60s, almost all Black college students enrolled at HBCUs.

Legal segregation had prevented Black Americans from attending college in the South, and quotas limited the number of Black students that could attend college in the North.

Today, all 100+ HBCUs across the United States continue to play a vital role in America's prosperity — academically, socially, and economically.

HBCUs are also becoming a magnet for international students — largely due to their strong academic programs, affordability, and diverse & inclusive environments.

Although HBCUs were originally founded to educate Black Americans, today 1 in 4 students (24%) enrolled at HBCUs is non-Black.

A Timeline of HBCU History

1837 — The nation's first & oldest HBCU (Cheyney) was established in Pennsylvania

On February 25, 1837, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania became the nation’s first black institute of higher learning. The University was established through a $10,000 endowment from Richard Humphreys, a Quaker philanthropist, to design and establish a school to educate people of African descent and prepare them as teachers.

First known as the African Institute, the school was soon renamed the Institute for Colored Youth. In its early years, it provided training in trades and agriculture, which were the predominant skills needed in the general economy. In 1914, it was renamed the Cheyney Training School for Teachers, became an institution of higher learning, and awarded its first degree.

Well-known alumni include the late Ed Bradley, legendary journalist and award-winning “60 Minutes” correspondent; Robert W. Bogle, publisher and CEO of the Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest newspaper continuously owned and operated by an Black American; and the late Bayard Rustin, prominent civil rights activist and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.

source: Cheyney University

1854 — The first degree-granting HBCU (Lincoln) was established in Pennsylvania

On April 29, 1854, Lincoln University, founded by John Miller Dickey and his wife, Sarah Emlen Cresson, received its charter from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, making it the nation's first degree-granting Historically Black College and University (HBCU).
In October 1853, the Presbytery of New Castle approved Dickey’s plan for the establishment of “an institution to be called Ashmun Institute, for the scientific, classical and theological education of colored youth of the male sex.”

On April 4, 1866, the The Ashmun Institute was re-named Lincoln University in honor of President Abraham Lincoln. At that time, Dickey then proposed to expand the college into a full-fledged university and to enroll students of “every clime and complexion.” Law, medical, pedagogical and theological schools were planned in addition to the College of Liberal Arts. White students were encouraged to enroll and two graduated in the first baccalaureate class of six men in 1868.

During its early years, Lincoln was known colloquially as "the Black Princeton" due to its Princeton University-educated founder and early faculty, rigorous classical curriculum, ties to the Presbyterian Church and its similarities in colors and mascots.

Thurgood Marshall, the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice and civil rights advocate, and the legendary poet and activist Langston Hughes — were classmates and notable graduates of Lincoln University.

source: Lincoln University

1856 — The first Black owned & operated HBCU (Wilberforce) was established in Ohio

Wilberforce University was founded in 1856 by the Cincinnati Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) to provide classical education and teacher training for Black youth. In 1863 — after a year-long closing during the Civil War — AME Bishop Daniel A. Payne (one of the university's original founders) negotiated the AME Church's outright purchase of Wilberforce University and became the first Black American college president in the U.S.

In 1887 the state of Ohio began to fund Wilberforce University and established a combined teachers' program and industrial department. This program expanded and eventually legally split to become Central State University. Wilberforce University was named after the 18th century abolitionist William Wilberforce.

sources: Wilberforce University, Ohio History Central

1865 — The first HBCU (Shaw) in the South was established in North Carolina

On December 1, 1865, Shaw University was established as the first institution of higher learning for freedmen after the Civil War. Shaw University was founded by Henry Martin Tupper, a Baptist minister.

Shaw boasts many “firsts”: the first college in the nation to offer a four-year medical program, the first historically Black college in the nation to open its doors to women, and the first historically Black college in North Carolina to be granted an “A” rating by the State Department of Public Instruction.

Notable graduates include Ella Baker, 'The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement', and Wille E. Gary, on of America's leading trial attorneys.

source: Shaw University

1890 — The federal government grants land to Black colleges and universities

On August 30, 1890, the Second Morrill Act was passed and required states with racially segregated public higher education systems to provide a land-grant institution for Black students whenever a land-grant institution was established and restricted for White students. After the passage of the Act, public land-grant institutions specifically for Blacks were established in each of the southern and border states.

As a result, some new public Black institutions were founded, and a number of formerly private Black schools came under public control; eventually 19 Black institutions were designated as land-grant colleges. These institutions mostly offered courses in agricultural, mechanical, and industrial subjects.

View Map of Schools

Made by 1890 Universities Foundation

sources: 1890 Universities Foundation, U.S. Department of Education

1965 — HBCUs were officially designated by the U.S. Department of Education

On November 8, 1965, in Title III of the Higher Education Act of 1965, Congress officially defined a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) as a school of higher learning that was accredited and established before 1964, and whose principal mission was the education of Black Americans.

source: U.S. Department of Education

2020 — The first HBCU polo team was established at Morehouse College in Georgia

On February 5, 2020, The Morehouse College Polo Club received official notice from the United States Polo Association of their membership into the organization, making it the first Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to have a polo team.

Co-founded by Atlanta entrepreneur Miguel Wilson and Morehouse students Rian Toussaint, Justin Wynn, and Caleb Cherry, the Morehouse Polo Club was started in 2019 due to the help of Wilson’s Ride the Olympics Foundation.

source: HBCU Buzz

2020 — The first HBCU cycling team was established at Saint Augustine's University in North Carolina

On April 29, 2020, the Saint Augustine’s University administration announced the formation of the first Historically Black College or University (HBCU) cycling team in the country.

The team has recently been approved and registered by USA Cycling to compete in the collegiate club Atlantic division against dozens of other schools in the Southeast.

The team, which has been in the works since the summer of 2019, will be coached by professors Umar Muhammad and Dr. Mark Janas, both of whom teach in the business school at Saint Augustine’s University. The team will begin competition as early as Fall 2020.

source: HBCU Gameday

2020 — The first HBCU history course was established at Virginia State University

In the fall of 2020, Virginia State University started offering the nation’s first higher education course focused solely on the history of the HBCUs.

History 342-HBCU History, created by Dr. Cheryl Mango, Assistant Professor of History, covers a range of historical and cultural topics regarding HBCUs and further documents African and African-American accomplishments and the invaluable contributions of black and brown people to the birthing and expansion of the human species.

source: Virginia State University

2020 — The first national HBCU research center was established at Virginia Union University

On December 30, 2020, Virginia Union University launched the Center for the Study of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), making it the only research center of its kind in the country dedicated to focusing on HBCUs.

The Center for the Study of HBCUs is a national research center, whose vision is to become the country’s preeminent institute for the advancement of relevant scholars and scholarship.

source: Virginia Union University

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