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Are HBCUs Still Relevant?

May 31, 2008
Imagine a time when equality was not available to all. Imagine a time when the realization of one's dream depended solely on the color of one's skin.

The dream of achieving a college education and reaching for the stars in an attempt to achieve lifelong dreams became a dream deferred for many African Americans in the early years of this great nation. Dreams of becoming a doctor, an attorney, or an engineer were completely off limits for African Americans because of this country's rigid caste system. Because of slavery and Jim Crow laws, society forced Blacks to do menial jobs, which kept the majority of them stuck in the country's lower class, praying for a day when equality would be available for all.

From the Middle Passage to the emancipation of Black slaves in 1865, African Americans were denied basic education by their slave masters for fear that education would lead to upheaval and rebellion. Despite their efforts, many African Americans, such as Alexander Lucius Twighlight, an 1823 graduate of Middlebury College, received college degrees.

After the abolishment of slavery, White philanthropist began opening the first Historically Black Colleges and Universities as a means of providing minimal skills to freed slaves. Schools such as Cheyney State University and Wilberforce University began training Blacks in such fields as religion and various manual trades that the masses believed suitable for African Americans.

The training that the first generation of Black college students received was skills that Whites believed would help them become more accepted in the larger culture, such as etiquette, speech and dress.

The lack of opportunities afforded to African Americans led to many student protests by the next generation of Black scholars who never experienced the horrors of slavery like their predecessors, and were determined to achieve first-class citizenship and first-class opportunities. Because of the growing dissatisfaction among the younger generation of Black scholars, HBCUs began to undergo a transformation, similar to White institutions, which included a more diverse curriculum, more student activities, and more Greek-letter organizations.

Although African Americans had enrolled at predominately-White universities in the North for years, Jim Crow laws had prevented their enrollment at many top universities in the South. However, through protest and perseverance, African Americans began seeing doors open for them that had been closed since their arrival in this country, hundreds of years earlier.

In 1862, James Meredith became the first Black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi despite the protests of many Mississippi residents, including Governor Ross Barnett, who blocked the entrance of the registrar's office to prevent Meredith's enrollment.

Despite Barnett's actions, Meredith was secretly enrolled at the university amidst student protests that left two people mortally wounded, and left Ole Miss littered with bricks, burned automobiles, and empty tear-gas canisters.

Despite Meredith's success enrolling at Ole Miss, his matriculation at the school was anything but normal. He was escorted to class everyday by federal marshals, and almost completely ignored by his fellow classmates.

Although faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Meredith persevered and eventually graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1963 with a degree in History and Political Science. James Meredith's success at Ole Miss provided inspiration to many African Americans who succeeded him at other previously segregated schools, and ignited a shift for some Black students, away from HBCUs to larger flagship universities that had previously been off limits to people of color.

Because of the acceptance of Blacks at predominately-White colleges during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the number of African Americans attending HBCUs experienced a tremendous decline. At one point, it was estimated that approximately 70 percent of all Black college students received their education at a HBCU. Not only did HBCUs experience a drastic decline in enrollment, but also many top-notch institutions began competing with HBCUs for the brightest African American students by offering scholarships and a broader curriculum.

As many teenagers prepare for higher education, the process of choosing the right university can be a daunting task. Many seek a university for the sole purpose of enhancing their education, while others seek a college that will also enhance their social development.

For young African Americans, the choice can be extremely difficult as they choose between a traditional school and a HBCU.

Some critics believe that HBCUs are outdated and that young Black adults will fair better at predominately-White institutions because its demographics prepare them better for the "real world."

However, proponents of HBCUs believe that four or more years amongst one's peers provide cultural pride an improved sense of self.

This debate has led many scholars to question: Are HBCUs still relevant, and are they the best institutions to train our next generation of leaders?

For Tisha Smith, who attended both a HBCU and a traditional university, the experience at a Black college was the best. Growing up in a predominately-White neighborhood, Smith's environment taught her very little about her own culture. Growing up as a minority in an affluent neighborhood, she experienced many instances of bigotry and intolerance from her peers.

She often found herself the only Black face in her classroom, and sometimes felt she did not fit in with the larger culture that surrounded her.

However, by attending a HBCU, she became more aware of her culture and felt a sense of security and belonging that she did not feel while attending a traditional college. Attending a HBCU also shielded her from the racism she experienced as a child, and allowed her to experience life as an individual and not a color.

Although doors have opened because of the triumphs of past generations, the struggle for equality in education continues. The discrepancies between affluent and underprivileged school systems across America have many minorities falling behind other groups. However, by educating the next generation of leaders, the achievement gap should become equal, regardless if those leaders are educated at a traditional school or a HBCU.
About the Author
Todd Smith is the web master for Regal Mag The preeminent Online Magazine for African American Men
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