Taking the Pulse of Historically Black Colleges

Sheldon Avery

The federal Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, defines a “historically” black institution of higher education as “any historically black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principle mission was, and is, the education of black Americans.”1 They are usually referred to as HBCUs. Most private black colleges originated in the nineteen southern and border states after the Civil War during and after Reconstruction (1867–1890). They were started by white northern missionaries and white and black church groups, aided in the early years by the Freedmen’s Bureau, and in the later years by white philanthropic foundations funded by Nelson Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Julius Rosenwald, and others. Most public black colleges, with the exception of federally funded Howard University, were started after passage of the Second Morrill Act in 1890 that provided federal funds for land grant colleges.

Over time many black colleges closed or changed their mission and curricula, and others were established. In 1900 only about 4,000 black college students were enrolled in HBCUs, the great majority in the South. Because of the prohibition against educating slaves before 1865 and the meager resources provided for black education during Reconstruction, by 1900 only fifty-eight of the ninety-nine HBCUs had college-level curricula, and only 10 percent of black students were in postsecondary academic programs. Between 1900 and 1930 black student enrollment had expanded to 29,000 and HBCUs began to develop into a viable higher education system. Due to the South’s dual racial education system before the 1950s, HBCUs were the overwhelming source “for an educated middle class of lawyers, doctors, teachers, and leaders to serve the black community.”2

Today there are about 103 HBCUs, slightly more than half private, the rest public, and a few two-year institutions. Together they have graduated about 70 percent of all blacks who have received a college degree since the nation’s founding. Although today only about 14 percent of black college students attend HBCUs, 70 percent of all black doctors and dentists, 50 percent of all black engineers and public school teachers, and 35 percent of all black attorneys received their bachelor’s degrees at an HBCU.3 Despite that record, since the 1950s HBCUs have felt insecure about their future.

On May 24, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in the school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education.4 This landmark case has influenced contemporary American social and political history more than any other in the last half century by overturning Plessy v. Ferguson,5 the 1896 ruling that made segregated public railway cars (and by extension all public facilities) constitutional if they were “separate but equal” in some undefined way. Plessy and the segregated land grant colleges set up in the South by the Second Morrill Act gave legitimacy to the white South’s public separation of the races.

Since 1935, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been seeking integration of public schools through court cases challenging Plessy by representing individual black students seeking access to segregated law schools in Maryland (1935), Missouri (1938), Oklahoma (1948) and Texas (1950).6 Although the NAACP won all these cases, the Supreme Court had not overturned Plessy because none of the states involved had provided anything remotely resembling equal facilities for black students. In Brown, the Court dealt with a situation in Kansas where conditions for black students—school buildings, equipment, teacher preparation, training, and salaries—were close enough to those conditions for white students that the judges had to rule on the constitutionality of the “separate but equal” doctrine itself. Based in large measure on the testimony of black psychologist Kenneth Clark’s contention that requiring the separation of black and white students in schools (and potentially in institutions of higher learning) created a sense of inferiority among minority blacks and violated their Fourteenth Amendment right to “equal protection before the law,” the Warren Court unanimously overturned Plessy and announced that racially separate schools were “inherently unequal” and therefore unconstitutional.

The Brown decision was hailed by most blacks and whites who opposed what were called “Jim Crow” laws, but a number of HBCU presidents and others with connections to these southern and border state institutions were concerned that the Court’s decision to desegregate all elementary and secondary schools could also be used to integrate or eliminate HBCUs. They feared the Court would extend the rejection of the “separate but equal” doctrine to all public colleges and universities in the South and that many black students at public and private HBCUs would choose or transfer to predominantly white public universities (PWIs) because of their superior facilities, program offerings, and comparable tuition costs.7

The United Negro College Fund (UNCF), an association of most of the private HBCUs, anticipated the Court’s decision and was ready to challenge any attempt to shut down HBCUs. Formed in 1944 by twenty-seven private accredited four-year HBCUs to coordinate fundraising from white and black supporters of black higher education to raise money to provide scholarships, improve facilities, and use the media to promote HBCUs, UNCF could speak as one voice for some of the best known and most respected HBCUs—Fisk, Morehouse, Spelman, Dillard—but faced a dilemma following the Brown decision. For ten years it had promoted its member colleges and HBCUs in general as superior to PWIs for black students academically, socially, psychologically, and culturally. But now the Court was saying that segregated schools were inherently inferior for minority students. How could UNCF spokesman reconcile these messages? Would white business leaders stop supporting UNCF? Would black students abandon HBCUs? If UNCF members and public HBCUS began actively recruiting white students to compensate for likely diminished black enrollment, would that alter the HBCUs social and academic environment and undermine their basic mission to provide black students quality education and racial uplift?8

UNCF’s solution was necessarily pragmatic. Seemingly accepting the inevitability of desegregated higher education in the South, they argued that, given the southern states’ historic opposition to desegregation, the transition would take an “indefinite period” of time to complete, echoing the Warren Court’s ambiguous call in 1955 for the states to use “all deliberate speed” to carry out desegregation of the schools.9 This tactic worked for a while. Corporate donations to UNCF held steady and few blacks successfully enrolled in southern public PWIs. But in the 1960s conditions dramatically changed in U.S. race relations. Under the leadership of Lyndon Johnson, Congress responded to southern states’ resistance and delaying tactics to civil rights reforms by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Higher Education Act of 1965, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.10

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the executive branch tools needed to enforce the Brown decision, including Title VI, which allowed the government to withhold federal funds from colleges and universities that were resisting desegregation. The Higher Education Act of 1965 provided federal funds to help economically disadvantaged students attend college. During the same period, the slow rate of social change brought major race riots; the emergence of radical black groups like the Nation of Islam and Black Panthers demanding “black power”; and students on HBCU campuses, like North Carolina A & T, Fisk, and Jackson State, staging protests against Jim Crow laws and the Vietnam War, but also demanding more of a voice on campuses and in black communities. Even the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, founded in 1960 mostly by black students from many HBCUs in support of Dr. Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights movement, eventually turned to greater militancy and public protest beyond tactics supported by Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Many HBCU presidents followed their students lead and became more militant, supporting black studies courses and demanding greater equity in funding for black colleges from state legislatures and the federal government. In support of these financial demands, black scholars began to publish research on conditions at HBCUs, especially on how black HBCU students fared in comparison to black PWI students. Their research generally found that in most quantitative and qualitative outcomes (e.g., retention and graduation rates, transfers to graduate and professional schools, positive interaction with students and faculty) black students seemed to be doing better at HBCUs despite insufficient financial support from southern state legislatures.11

During the stormy late 1960s and early 1970s the issue of desegregating HBCUs seemed to fade into the background. The federal government was not pressuring southern PWIs to do more than introduce race-neutral admission standards, and allow a small number of high-achieving black students to “desegregate” PWIs. But HBCUs were experiencing another threat to their survival. A series of actions by the federal government was dramatically altering black enrollments in higher education and at HBCUs. Black higher education enrollments significantly increased when black war veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill and others joined the second black migration from the South to northern cities for better paying jobs and escape from southern-style racism. Outside the South public PWIs were integrated and generally welcomed qualified black students even before affirmative action took root. In parts of the South public PWIs were beginning to accept more black students. As a result, although black enrollments in higher education grew, the percentage of blacks at HBCUs dropped dramatically. In the early 1960s, more than 70 percent of all black students attended HBCUs; by 1968 that number dropped to 36 percent, and by 1976 to just 18 percent.12

In addition to declining enrollments, a number of the smaller HBCUs, those averaging less than one thousand students, were suffering from administrative mismanagement, aging facilities, and accreditation problems. There was still reason to fear that federal courts would use Brown to force HBCUs to merge with nearby public PWIs or be closed down to speed up the desegregation process. For example, even before the Brown decision, the University of Kentucky had in 1951 opened all its programs to qualified blacks, and Louisville Municipal College, a black college nearby, was shut down and all but one of its eighteen black faculty dismissed.13

Frustrated with the slow pace of school desegregation in the South, the Supreme Court ruled in Green School Board v. New Kent County in 1968 that the county’s freedom of choice plan—whereby parents could send their children to either the black or white elementary and high school in that rural eastern Virginia county—was ineffective in ending segregation because no white parents had chosen the black schools and very few blacks had chosen the white schools. The Court was now demanding that school boards do their “affirmative duty” to desegregate their dual school systems. In Green, the Court made clear that freedom of choice plans satisfied Brown and Brown II only if they did not produce a white or a black school, “but just a school.”14 HBCU supporters were concerned that the Court would apply Green’s endorsement of full integration to higher education and insist that southern states merge their public colleges and universities, possibly resulting in the loss of many HBCUs.

In 1969 the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) notified ten southern and border states that they were still in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and called for each to submit desegregation plans. Because newly elected president Richard Nixon dropped use of the threat to suspend federal funds to states that did not comply, most of the ten states ignored HEW’s request. In 1970 the Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF), which had become independent of the NAACP in 1957, forced the issue by suing HEW for failing to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. In Adams v. Richardson (1970–1973), a class action suit against HEW for permitting a dual racial system of higher education in the states,15 the LDF was joined by the National Association for Equal Educational Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), formed in 1969 by black public and private college presidents working together for the first time to lobby for greater state and federal funding for HBCUs.16

The Adams cases did not resolve any of the outstanding legal issues but were important for two reasons. First, it revealed deep differences about integration within the black community, which the conflicting positions taken by the LDF and NAFEO briefs in the Adams cases reflect. Second, it became clear in Adams that the federal courts were treating desegregation in higher education differently from elementary and secondary schools, partly because a student’s choice of school was more a factor in higher education. On the first matter, the underlying difference between the positions of the LDF/NAACP and the NAFEO was that the former were committed to full integration while the latter was more interested in protecting HBCUs and preserving a viable black culture. The NAACP/LDF leadership did not believe HBCUs would ever get the funding necessary to compete with white colleges. NAFEO leaders feared integration would lead to the demise of HBCUs.

The Adams cases were dismissed when the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, ordered the states to submit desegregation plans to HEW. In 1974 HEW accepted most of the plans. In 1975, a group of black Mississippians dissatisfied with the inconclusive outcome of Adams filed a class action suit against the Office of Civil Rights of the federal Department of Education. Over time, Adams evolved into United States v. Fordice, a landmark case in desegregating higher education that took more than two decades to be resolved.17

Mississippi was one of ten states challenged by Adams to present HEW with a workable desegregation plan for higher education. The state had the worst record of response to Brown. Although by 1870 Mississippi had two private black colleges (Shaw University, later renamed Rust College, and Tougaloo Normal and Manual Training School) and was the first southern state to create a black public land grant college (Alcorn University in 1871), when whites regained political control after Reconstruction in 1877 Mississippi reduced Alcorn’s status to a vocational college and drastically cut its funding. By 1900 blacks represented 60 percent of Mississippi’s students at all levels, but received only 19 percent of state funding.

Alcorn was Mississippi’s only black public college until the World War II era, when Jackson State University (1940) and Mississippi Valley State University (1946) were established. After the Brown decision in 1954 Mississippi became the first state to create a segregationist Citizen’s Council and use interposition, a modern form of state nullification of federal law, to resist school integration. Mississippi’s five public white universities resisted accepting any black students until James Meredith won access to the University of Mississippi in 1961. Meredith had to be escorted to campus by 16,000 federal troops, and ensuing riots led to several deaths and hundreds wounded.18

When HEW accepted Mississippi’s desegregation plan in 1974, a group of Mississippi’s black leaders in the Black Mississippians’ Council for Higher Education were greatly dissatisfied with the state’s limited reforms. They filed a class action suit, Ayers v. Waller, in January 1975.19 The plaintiffs in Ayers were primarily interested in two legal issues raised by Brown not yet resolved by the courts: Were Mississippi’s HBCUs legal, and if so could they demand major financial enhancements from the state and federal government to catch up with the state’s PWIs? The answers to these questions would likely affect black higher education throughout the South.

The state of Mississippi claimed it had come into compliance with Brown by increasing funding for the HBCUs, introducing race-neutral student admission standards at all public universities by using American College Test (ACT) scores, and raising “mission designation” for Jackson State to allow it almost as many master’s and doctorate programs as the three PWIs. The U.S. Department of Justice, which had joined the private plaintiffs in negotiating with state authorities, agreed that the Mississippi plan did not meet HEW’s criteria for desegregating higher education. In 1987 the case came to trial and the federal district court ruled that Mississippi was in compliance. On appeal to a full Fifth Circuit Appeals Court in 1990, the district court decision was upheld, but in April 1991 the Supreme Court agreed to hear appeals to the Ayers case, now named United States v. Fordice.20

In 1992, thirty-six years after Brown, the Rehnquist Supreme Court overturned the Appeals Court and ruled that Mississippi had not taken adequate measures to desegregate higher education in the state and sent the case back to the federal district court with suggestions for what had to be done to be in compliance. In his majority opinion, Judge Byron White said, “[A] State does not discharge its constitutional obligations until it eradicates policies and practices traceable to its prior de jure dual system that continue to foster segregation.”21 White pointed out that neither the ACT race-neutral admissions standard nor the revised mission designation resulted in significant desegregation of Mississippi’s eight public universities. He suggested the state facilitate desegregation by merging or closing some of the schools.

Although the High Court had not ruled that desegregation of higher education required the full integration of colleges, the Black Mississippians’ Council was very disturbed by Judge White’s merger suggestion. They were reminded again of HBCUs’ insecure status after Brown. Judge Clarence Thomas, the only black member of the Supreme Court, was also concerned by Judge White’s remark. In a concurring opinion, he emphasized the positive impact HBCUs had on blacks through more than a century since the Civil War. “It would be ironic, to say the least,” he added, “if the institutions that sustained blacks during segregation were themselves destroyed in an effort to combat its vestiges.”22

Judge Thomas did not join the Black Mississippians’ Council in criticizing the Court for rejecting the plaintiffs demand for financial enhancements. Judge White had made clear that if the plaintiffs demand for upgrading the three black universities “was so that they may be publicly financed, exclusively black enclaves by private choice, we reject that request.”23 “Whether such an increase in funding is necessary to achieve a full dismantlement under the standards we have outlined” he added, “is a different question, and one that needs to be addressed on remand.” Judge Thomas agreed with Judge White, but made the important point that the states could provide greater financial enhancements if they wished.

Although many supporters of civil rights celebrated Fordice as a landmark victory in the struggle to desegregate higher education because it put greater pressure on the states to comply with affirmative reform, black educators and their supporters were disappointed with three aspects of the decision. First, the Court had sent the case back to the federal district court without very specific instructions. Second, the Court had not made clear that HBCUs were constitutional and had hinted at the need for merging or closing some of them to move desegregation forward. Third and most important to the private plaintiffs, the Court had rejected the argument for requiring financial enhancements, or reparations, to compensate HBCUs for generations of underfunding. HBCU supporters were not optimistic about the long-range impact of Fordice on black higher education.

The High Courts that dealt with Brown and Fordice thirty years apart had very different personnel and perspectives—the Warren Court more liberal on social issues, the Rehnquist Court more conservative—but both shared an important view of the Court’s role in the legal and political life of the country.

Both Brown and Fordice decisions broke new ground in responding to deeply rooted racial beliefs and attitudes, and both refrained from pushing the changes they had wrought too quickly. The Warren Court called for “all deliberate speed,” knowing that the South would resist strongly and possibly violently and that the federal government would have to move forward cautiously to bring improvement in race relations. The Rehnquist Court made the same decision in sending the case back to the district court. Knowing that what happened in Mississippi would influence other southern states and that the High Court could not impose a uniform list of desegregation criteria for all noncompliant states, the district judge working with state officials and leaders of the black community would be in a better position to reach agreement on how to bring about desegregation and improved race relations. It would take another fourteen years for that consensus to develop.

In October 1992, four months after the Fordice ruling, the Mississippi higher education Board of Trustees filed a report with the federal district court listing a number of ways the state could comply with the desegregation order. One of the remedies involved a radical restructuring of the eight public universities. The plan would reduce the number of schools to five by merging black Mississippi Valley State with white Delta State, and black Alcorn State with white Mississippi State, and by merging two white institutions, Mississippi University for Women and the University of Southern Mississippi. Black educators saw this as a move to eliminate all public black colleges in Mississippi except for Jackson State, or as a scare tactic to get blacks to drop their demands for financial enhancements, open admissions enrollment, and other changes in the desegregation plan being considered by the district court. In 1994 the district judge rejected the merger idea and ordered Mississippi to create new programs for Jackson State and Alcorn State and provide both with five million dollars for “educational advancement and racial diversity,” including providing nonblack scholarships to recruit white students. The court rejected open admissions but ordered that high school grade point averages be added to ACT scores for race-neutral admissions to all eight universities.

Relieved that the immediate threat of shutting down two HBCUs was removed, the black plaintiffs appealed the district court’s plan to the Fifth Circuit, claiming the money was insufficient and that without open admissions 40 percent of academically disadvantaged black applicants would be denied access to higher education. The appeals court upheld the lower court’s plan and, in January 1998, the Supreme Court denied the plaintiffs’ petition for writ of certiorari.

Since the 1980s, Mississippi, like most of the deep southern states, was being slowly forced to accept the end of the most obvious vestiges of segregation. Many white businessmen saw the unresolved Fordice case as a barrier to economic expansion. In June 2000 newly elected governor Ronnie Musgrove brought together blacks and whites involved in the case to work on a settlement. In April 2001 an agreement was reached, which, if the district court approved, would give the HBCUs most of what they had demanded, including more than $500 million over seventeen years in financial enhancements, making it “the most expensive higher education desegregation in American history.”24 Specifically, the state would commit to give Mississippi’s three HCUs $246 million for new programs, $75 million for new facilities, a $70 million endowment (if the three schools achieved 10 percent nonblack enrollment for three consecutive years), and a $6.25 million scholarship fund for low-income families. Jackson State would receive several new Ph.D. programs and would join Mississippi’s three predominantly white universities as a top-tier “comprehensive” institution.25

Some black plaintiffs, alumni, faculty, and students were not satisfied. They said the financial enhancements were not enough to compete with the white universities, did not remove inequities in black faculty salaries, did not protect the academically disadvantaged students who needed open admission to have higher education access, and that the three HBCUs would have difficulty reaching 10 percent nonblack enrollment for three consecutive years. The district court denied their motion to reconsider the agreement and sent it to the state legislature to confirm its acceptance of the terms. Both houses overwhelmingly approved the agreement and the district court judge signed the compliance decree on February 15, 2002, thirty-seven years after the case was first heard.

Although some HBCUs are still in danger of closing, it will not likely be because of a radical interpretation of Brown. The High Court, Congress, and the executive branch have all accepted that higher education, public as well as private, involves a variety of institutions and student choice, and cannot be treated the same as public elementary and secondary schools. Like some PWIs forced to close in recent years, however, a number of HBCUs are in trouble because of low endowments, low enrollments, administrative and financial mismanagement, heavy debt, and/or loss of accreditation. Between 1996 and 2002 almost half of private HBCUs have received sanctions from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the regional accrediting agency for HBCUs and PWIs since 1931.26 Nevertheless, in recent years, regardless of which party occupies the White House, the federal government has clearly shown support for HBCUs. In 1980 Jimmy Carter signed Executive Order 12232, establishing a program “to overcome the effects of discriminatory treatment and expand the capacity of historically black colleges and universities to provide quality education.”27 Since then every president from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush has issued similar executive orders in support of HBCUs. For example, in 1986 the Higher Education Act was amended to give HBCUs $170 million from 1987 to 1992 for infrastructure, enhancing program development, and research grants. Between 1993 and 2003, federal support for HBCUs increased $639 million, or 60 percent. Presidential executive orders have also created a President’s Board of Advisors for HBCUs, which submit an annual report to the White House, advise on policy matters concerning HBCUs, and monitor federal agency compliance.28 Barak Obama, the first black president of the United States, did not attend a black college, but he is likely to continue federal support for HBCUs.

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