In 1837, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania was founded as the first institution of higher education for African-Americans with the purpose of equipping and empowering students of diverse backgrounds to be visionary leaders in their chosen fields. Nearly 200 years later, there are over 100 HBCUs scattered across the South and Midwest, but over 50 years since the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the desegregation of universities and colleges, it is often questioned why HBCUs continue to exist and why students continue to enroll. Articles in defense of our institutions often cite the numbers. HBCUs still produce most Black doctors, lawyers, business professionals, etc. HBCUs admit students that PWIs (predominantly white institutions) would never admit. However, these reasons seem impersonal. HBCUs are not abstract institutions. They’re places, filled to the brim with a diverse array of students. To understand the continued importance HBCUs, I asked a current students at Spelman, Morehouse, and Howard — the big three HBCUs — to give their perspectives.
At Spelman College, junior Jessi Young describes her experience as a Spelman woman and how it has changed her for the better. “HBCUs are still relevant because they help cultivate and create confident identities for young Blacks to develop at such a pivotal time of their life. Without the teachings of an HBCU—from the love and support from teachers that look like me, to my amazing connections and friend groups— I could not have developed the strong character I am today. Spelman is a school that pours into me the necessities I need in life to succeed in a world that has systems/institutions in place to oppress me. Spelman is the right choice for me because it has given me the opportunity to change the world. That’s exactly what I’m meant to do.”
Josh Curry, a sophomore at Spelman’s brother school Morehouse, emphasizes the need for Black spaces and how learning in a Black space is incredibly important. “I chose Morehouse because I believed it would be a good environment for me to grow and learn with people like myself. I think the people make HBCUs. My experience would not be at all the same without the amazing people I meet here and hang out with every day. I think spaces for people of color to be fully themselves while getting a degree are amazing and should be preserved.”
One of my peers at Howard University, Dolly Bennett, succinctly describes their experience as a time for them to be their full self. “I love Black people, and I wanted to go to a school where I could be my full self and where I could be around Black people. I think it’s important that Black people have a space where they can learn and grow without fear.”
For me, Howard University has been my home away from home. It has formed the foundation of my adult identity. It has been the place where I have been allowed to explore my identity in numerous new ways. Howard is the only place I could have gone to be me. It has allowed me to thrive in an environment where I am celebrated, not tolerated.
While all HBCUs may have issues, it is important to remember they are part of Black history. The Black academic tradition began at our institutions. The leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were teachers, preachers, lawyers, and doctors that went to our institutions. But it is also important to remember our history isn’t just in the past. The future of the Black community is found on the yard of any HBCU.