Historically Black Colleges & Universities: A Legacy on the Ropes
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent narrow decision in the University of Michigan’s Affirmative Action decisions, and the question of whether or not there should be minority set-asides at the nation’s publicly funded white majority colleges and universities, broader questions beg to be asked, and answered. Namely should Black Americans continue to push to make inroads into these institutions, or should we as a community strive to make the Historically Black Colleges & University’s (HBCUs) a set of institutions that rival the best education Historically White Colleges & University’s (HWCUs), have to offer? Should the Black community forsake, whenever, and wherever possible, HWCUs in favor of HBCUs in an effort to continue the tradition of these fine institutes of higher learning, and in so doing ensure our future as an educated community of peoples dedicated to improving the American Idea?
Sprinkled predominately throughout the Southern states from Texas to Florida, and up the eastern seaboard from Georgia to Virginia, the 104 HBCUs are widely heralded for the part they played in creating much of the nation's black middle class. According to a February 21st, 2003 article by Ruby Bailey from the Detroit Free Press, some thirty percent of black PhD’s obtained them from black colleges…”as did 35 percent of Black-American lawyers, 50 percent of black engineers and 65 percent of black physicians.”
She went on to state, quoting M. Christopher Brown, a professor and researcher at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University, that “[s]uch schools ‘remain the cultural repository for African-American history…[t]hese are institutions that demonstrated over time the ability to be effective and efficient with limited resources.’”
A Beginning Born Out of Necessity
At the end of Civil War, there were some four million uneducated newly emancipated slaves, who needed to be cared for, or they could be taught how to care for themselves. So through the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, the federal government used confiscated Confederate land and a $400,000 endowment (which lasted just three years) to start schools for the blacks across the south; blacks, who before the Civil War it had been largely illegal to educate.
As the South struggled through the pain of reconstruction, religious missionaries from the victorious Northern states began setting up makeshift schools in church basements and Union camp shacks. The schools likened themselves to colleges and universities, but in reality they were little more than tutoring at the elementary level, and a true college education was more of a distant goal than a reality. And the task was daunting, for most of the college-age ex-slaves could neither read, nor write.
It was a period of enormous uncertainty, but also unanswered prayers for the education of the newly freed black Americans. Grambling State University in Louisiana, perhaps one of the better known HBCUs was started by Black farmers; Fisk University in Nashville was started in wooden shacks on confiscated Confederate land. Again, Ruby Bailey in her February 21st, 2003 Detroit Free Press article, quoting Prof. Reavis Mitchell, chairman of Fisk University 's history department, states, “[e]very time it rained, little buildings got washed out…[i]n the summer, there were the mosquito infestations and the ticks.’” Two slaves started Talladega College in Alabama, and still other HBCUs were funded by well meaning white philanthropists. Spelman College, an all-women's college in Atlanta and perhaps the most well-known HBCU, was started in the basement of Friendship Church with 11 students. The room had dirt floors, and if it rained the floor turned to mud, and if the sun didn’t shine there was not enough light to conduct class.
And of course the schools were threatened by angry white men. Many were in the heart of the newly formed Ku Klux Klan, and had watch towers manned by students at night. But through it all HBCUs prospered and educated millions of Black Americans.
But that legacy is threatened.
Fighting To Stay Alive; a History of Under-funding
The 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessey vs. Ferguson condoning segregation, and institutionalizing “the separate but equal” doctrine, prompted states to finance public black colleges in an effort to keep young Black American students out of HWCUs. But the states only allocated enough funds so that they were seen as doing something, and the funding levels never reached that of HWCUs, and it shows in the paltry endowments all of the HBCUs have to operate from.
A recent Thurgood Marshall Fund (a scholarship program to help black students attend one of the 45 member HBCUs) study shows that of the 37 public HBCUs, that responded to its inquiries, 26 have endowments of $1 million to $6 million—much less than many comparable institutions. Consider the endowments of top fifty HWCUs in Year 2001 dollars: Harvard University ranks number one with some $17.5-billion; Yale University is in second with $10.4 billion, Mayo Foundation ranks 25 with some $1.5-billion, and Penn. State University ranks 50 with some $942 million in its endowment fund.
Contrast that with Howard University in Washington D.C. which ranks number one among HBCUs with an endowment of just $305 million, Spelman College with an endowment of $220-million, and Harris-Stowe State College in St. Louis has the smallest endowment fund of just $796,000, and three other HBCUs with endowments of less than $1million. The total endowment figure for all 104 historically black schools, public and private, will total some $1.6 billion for 2003 according to United Negro College Fund figures.
While the desegregation of the mid 20th century opened the doors for young black American students to attend HWCUs, the shift siphoned off some of the best and brightest black American students and professors from HBCUs. This led to declining enrollments. Forcing some of the financially weaker school to lower tuition only served to worsen an already dire situation.
Though the Bush administration recently proposed a 5-percent funding increase for HBCUs—to $224 million—in the 2004 federal budget, that is just a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to what these schools really need to survive and thrive financially.
Morris Brown College in Atlanta, GA is struggling and may not survive. The college is $23 million in debt, and is fighting off lawsuits from unpaid vendors while the institution battles to pay daily operating expenses. The college lost its accreditation from the Southern Association of College and Schools in December 2002, citing among other things the Morris Brown’s record of bad bookkeeping and lack of faculty members with advanced degrees, as the reason for the Association’s decision. The school is appealing, and graduated its seniors early in March to ensure their diplomas would be accepted.
We have in our HBCUs a rich tradition of learning and service to our community. But because of a litany of problems, not the least of which is chronic under-funding (for all) and mismanagement (in some cases), that tradition for some HBCUs might well be coming to an end. What are the answers? Here is one. The push for reparation for the scourge of slavery is in full swing. But there is a wide disparity of opinion as to what form the reparations, if paid by the federal government, should take. In my previous article entitled “What Form Reparations?” I advanced the idea that reparations should be paid in the form of education vouchers given to black Americans to attend a college or university.
Now I would like to propose something even more far-reaching; a proposal that would help not only the black community, but enrich the lives of all Americans; from the reparations endow all of the HBCUs to the sum of $1 billion each. This would bring them up to the level of some the best HWCUs in the country, allow these schools to modernize and expand, and attract nationally recognized black professors, and other faculty. In addition, this money would greatly expand the scholarship offering from these schools and help attract the best and brightest black students.
Good idea? Drop me an email and let me know what you think.
Bailey, Ruby L. Proud Past, Uncertain Future: Some Historically Black College are Fighting for
Their Lives. Detroit Free Press. February 21, 2003.
Infoplease.com. 2002. College and University Endowments, 2002. 29 June 2003