Spotlight on the US: Celebrating Black History Month with A Brief History of HBCUs

24/02/202111 minute read
Spotlight on the US: Celebrating Black History Month with A Brief History of HBCUs

Black History Month has been observed in the United States every year since 1976 and has more recently received official recognition in Canada and several European countries. In honor of the month-long celebration of African American achievements throughout the last two centuries, we’re sharing a brief history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the US.

President Gerald R. Ford, the first to recognize Black History Month, urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Among those accomplishments is the cultivation of some of the most diverse and culturally rich universities in the US.

HBCUs have been at the forefront of American history for 180 years. They were established to fulfill the long-ignored educational needs of Black Americans in a time and place where postsecondary education was still largely segregated. Today, they provide unique environments where the college experience is bolstered by communities composed largely of students with similar backgrounds and cultural experiences.

In addition to a supportive environment, HBCUs are traditionally more affordable and diverse than most US universities, with robust alumni networks. Some well-known graduates of these universities include Vice President Kamala Harris (Howard), Oprah Winfrey (TSU), Samuel L. Jackson (Morehouse), Stacey Abrams (Spelman), and Stephen A. Smith (Winston-Salem).


Before the Civil War (1861-1865), access to quality education was non-existent for Black Americans. This was not only because Southern states prohibited it, but there was also a belief that the education of Black individuals would lead to rebellion. The few who were able to study at the time were often met with hostile and unsafe conditions, while others simply resorted to teaching themselves what they could. Only four universities existed at the time that catered to Black students - Cheyney University (1837), University of the District of Columbia (1851), Lincoln University (1854), and Wilberforce University (1856).

The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 allocated 30,000 acres of federal land to every state for the purpose of educating scientists, teachers, and farmers. This act laid the foundation for a national network of state colleges and universities, but it wasn’t until the second Morrill Act of 1890 that Americans would see the emergence of HBCUs. As a modification to its predecessor, the second act was re-written to specifically require states, especially those that were previously confederate, to give land-grants for schools for Black students. With the help of Black churches, the American Missionary Association, and The Freedmen’s Bureau, more than 90 schools were established before 1900.

Differing Opinions

The broadening of HBCUs was met with some speculation among the Black community. The first point of contention was that many of these universities, especially those established before the Civil War, were founded by White men that had negative prejudices against the economic, social, and intellectual competencies of Black people. Since they were also generally excluded from establishing learning institutions at the time, many believed that HBCUs were counterproductive to the advancement of equality and reinforced the separation of institutions.

Another concern was which type of education would further the advancement of Black scholars. Two graduates from the first generation of students to attend HBCUs would set the precedent for how future university curriculums would be structured.

Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was a freed slave and an avid supporter of vocational training because he attended the Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute. He went on to become one of the founding fathers of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), whose curriculum focused on preparing Black individuals for mechanical and agricultural trades. Washington believed that by doing work in practical trades, Black individuals would achieve equality.

On the other hand, W.E.B. Dubois (1868-1963), who was raised in Massachusetts and exposed to segregation during his undergraduate career, held a different perspective. Dubois didn’t discredit Washington for emphasizing training in vocational fields, but he stressed the importance of liberal arts education within society and believed that this was the best way to empower Black Students. He argued that a focus solely on trade education furthered the slavery agenda. By adding in a greater focus on arts and sciences, he believed that students would be able to identify their passions and create a sense of purpose for themselves to prepare the next generations.

Today, over 100 HBCUs exist in the US. Some have remained two-year institutions, while others have adapted and switched to a four-year curriculum similar to predominantly white schools. Despite differing opinions on which type of education to pursue at the onset, today we see a plethora of colleges and universities embracing both ways of thinking!

HBCUs: Ranked

Below are the top 6 highest ranked HBCUs according to US News. For the complete list, available programs, and notable alumni, visit The Hundred-Seven’s website!

UniversityLocationPopular ProgramsNotable Graduates
Spelman College (est. 1881)Atlanta, GAPsychology, Biology/Biological Sciences, Political Science and Government, and EconomicsStacey Abrams, Janet Bragg, and Rosalind G. Brewer
Howard University (est. 1867)Washington, D.C.Communication, Journalism, Business, Management, and MarketingKamala Harris, Thurgood Marshall, Sean John Combs, and Taraji P. Henson
Xavier University of Louisiana (est. 1915)New Orleans, LABiology/Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Psychology, Business Administration and ManagementAaron Henry, Annie Easley, John Stroger, and Alexis Herman
Tuskegee University (est. 1881)Tuskegee, ALMechanical Engineering, Biology/Biological Sciences, Psychology, Registered Nursing, and Sales, Distribution, and Marketing OperationsGeorge Washington Carver, Lionel Richie, Al Green, and Teddy Wilson
Hampton University (est. 1868)Hampton, VAPsychology, Biology/Biological Sciences, Organizational Communication, Business Administration and ManagementWanda Sykes, Booker T. Washington, and Mary Jackson
Morehouse College (est. 1867)Atlanta, GABusiness, Management, Marketing, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, English Language and Literature/LettersMartin Luther King Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, and Spike Lee

Want to learn more about HBCU rankings? Check out Crimson’s YouTube channel for a longer list!

Crimson has helped scores of students identify, apply and gain admission to their dream universities across the US, UK and EU. Are you interested in exploring HBCUs as potential additions to your university application list? Schedule a free consultation with an Academic Advisor to help you find your best-fit universities based on your strengths, interests, preferences and priorities.