By LaKeshia Myers
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) have a unique and storied history in the United States. HBCUs are colleges that were founded prior to 1964 with the principal mission of educating Black Americans. These institutions were founded and developed in an era of Defacto segregation and by providing access to higher education, contributed substantially to the progress academic and vocational progress of Black Americans.
Cheyney University of Pennsylvania has the distinction of being the oldest HBCU, having been founded in 1837. However, the majority of HBCUs were established after the abolition of slavery by various entities including the Freedman’s Bureau, religious denominations (primarily the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches), and state governments under the second Morrill Land Grant Act of 1890. The land grant colleges are significant, as they were deeded land by the federal government and were created to teach not only academics but agricultural sciences. My alma mater, Alcorn State University was the first historically black land grant institution in the country. One hundred forty-eight years after its founding, Alcorn still has strong agricultural programming and students have been at the forefront of research and extension.
According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, among African Americans, thirteen percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, forty percent of engineers, fifty percent of professors employed at predominantly white institutions, fifty percent of attorneys, and eighty percent of judges are graduates of HBCUs (TMCF, 2019). HBCUs are also the top producers of African American educators in the country. It should be no surprise then that special attention has been paid to HBCUs, as they are a great asset to the nation.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed Executive Order 12232, which established a federal program “… to overcome the effects of discriminatory treatment and to strengthen and expand the capacity of historically black colleges and universities to provide quality education.” In 1981, Ronald Reagan, under Executive Order 12320, established the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (WHIHBCU), which expanded the previous program and set into motion a government wide effort to strengthen our nation’s HBCUs. Each successive president has continued the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
One of the programs sponsored by the WHIHBCU has been National HBCU Week. During this particular week, HBCUs are on full display in the nation’s capital. With a conference dedicated to unique issues that relate to HBCU campuses, college presidents, policy makers, and students come to Washington, D.C., to advocate for, showcase, and promote HBCUs. While Wisconsin is not home to an HBCU, there are hundreds of HBCU alumni that have called Wisconsin home. Individuals such as former Secretary of State Vel Philips (Howard University, Alderman Khalif Rainey (Southern University), Chief Judge Maxine White (Alcorn State University), Senator LaTonya Johnson (Tennessee State University), Dr. Ramard White (Tuskegee University), and MPS Superintendent Dr. Keith Posley (Tougaloo College) just to name a few.
I implore all of us to celebrate National HBCU Week by taking time to research information about historically black colleges, learn the history and purpose of these institutions and know that they are still in existence today for good reason. They are places of refuge, both academic and social, and they have been and continue to be a candle in the dark, igniting the intellectual prowess of our people that is necessary to help us navigate the world.