40 Acres and An Education: The Rise of HBCUs

Junior preparatory class of Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee Howard University

The end of the Civil War freed hundreds of thousands of previously enslaved African Americans. These newly freed peoples soon demanded certain tools with which to build their new lives; among these tools were schools to rid themselves of the impositions of illiteracy and ignorance. Freedmen and women were early adopters of the American Dream dogma that an education could provide for social mobility and improved democratic citizenship60 .

According to Allen and Jewell, there were about 100 black colleges and universities in the South as soon as 25 years after the end of the civil war61 . These schools included Howard University, Fisk University, and the Hampton Institute among others62 . The main purpose of these schools was to 1) educate African Americans, 2) train teachers, and 3) “[continue] the missionary tradition by educated Blacks”63 . Most HBCUs were not controlled by African Americans themselves, but by White missionaries and other well intentioned White people64 . At times this could create conflicts of interest; while some institutions provided the typical liberal arts education, others provided an alternative education steeped in the assumptions of the inferiority of African Americans65 . For example, the founder of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute believed that African Americans were incapable of effectively using the training provided by a liberal arts education and thus encouraged - or rather enforced - a curriculum of “practical” knowledge which stressed physical labor and manual skills66 .

The photos in the gallery below, depict students of the Hampton Institute (far left and right) learning blacksmithing and fabric weaving. The center photo is taken from the Mechanical and Agricultural college in Greensboro, NC and depicts both male and female students sitting in a biology lab. These images give us conflicting stories about these technical schools. On the one hand, images from the Hampton Institute show classes divided by gendered labor: men are taking blacksmithing and women are learning to weave fabric. On the other hand, the photo from the Mechanical and Agricultural college show a coeducational learning environment in the scientific field of biology, a field traditionally left to men. While all of this learning may have been more practical and useful in the daily lives of African Americans, it shows the ways in which education could be an expression of Black freedom and autonomy as well as a source of restriction along both race and class lines.

Historically Black colleges and universities came to be the largest contributors to the growth of the Black middle class67 . Not only did these schools give African Americans the tools to garner middle class wages and take on middle class jobs, but they taught Black students the “culture” of the middle class. Black students were taught the appropriate dress, speech patterns, and mannerisms attributed to White protestant society in the dignified northeast68 . See the image in the top right; this photo of students at Fisk University shows that these students are dressed well and sitting politely, like proper members of middle class society. According to Jewell and Allen: “While these institutions produced the highly educated and skilled class of leaders that the Freedmen's Education Movement had envisioned, they were also (in keeping with the desires of their missionary founders) a group thoroughly assimilated into middle-class Anglo-Protestant culture. These institutions gave a distinct and definite cultural meaning to class and status among African Americans”69 . The newly minted Black middle class would then become the greatest proponents of the politics of respectability.


In a graduation address given to students at the Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth in June of 1899, the keynote speaker Benjamin William Arnett encouraged students to adopt middle class virtues and aid in the uplift of the race (featured below). “The lights of the intellectual world are to illuminate the pathway of the present generation” .  He talks about living in a world of hope, despair, and changes, ultimately hoping that by adopting middle class virtues, white citizens would have no choice but to admit African Americans as their equal . Many African Americans would come to adopt this same philosophy in their struggles against burgeoning segregation. Blair Kelley notes in her book Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson that middle class African Americans would either be willing to allow for the exclusion of poor or “unruly” Blacks or would develop the expectations that other African Americans should ascribe to middle class values to undermine the arguments for segregation70 . In many ways the ideas of racial uplift were used by the Black middle class to constrain or denounce poor African Americans. These tensions within the African American community show yet another layer of how college education could be a source of both freedom and oppression.

FOOTNOTES

60. Allen, Walter Recharde, and Joseph O. Jewell. 2002. A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher Education 25 (3):page 241-242

61. Allen, Walter Recharde, and Joseph O. Jewell. 2002. A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher Education 25 (3):page 244

62. Allen, Walter Recharde, and Joseph O. Jewell. 2002. A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher Education 25 (3): page 244

63. Allen, Walter Recharde, and Joseph O. Jewell. 2002. A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher Education 25 (3): page 244

64. Allen, Walter Recharde, and Joseph O. Jewell. 2002. A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher Education 25 (3): page 245

65. Allen, Walter Recharde, and Joseph O. Jewell. 2002. A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher Education 25 (3): page 245

66. Allen, Walter Recharde, and Joseph O. Jewell. 2002. A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher Education 25 (3): page 245

67. Allen, Walter Recharde, and Joseph O. Jewell. 2002. A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher Education 25 (3): page 246

68. Allen, Walter Recharde, and Joseph O. Jewell. 2002. A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher Education 25 (3):page 246

69. Allen, Walter Recharde, and Joseph O. Jewell. 2002. A backward glance forward: Past, present and future perspectives on historically black colleges and universities. The Review of Higher Education 25 (3): page 246

70. Kelley, Blair Murphy. Right to ride: Streetcar boycotts and African American citizenship in the era of Plessy v. Ferguson. Univ of North Carolina Press, 2010. page 119-120