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HBCU Spotlight: Showcasing the Unique Contributions of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Mar 05, 2024 10:00AM ● By Okechukwu Nzeribe

Image by prostooleh on Freepik

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have greatly influenced the advancement of many African Americans in academia. Exposing them to undergraduate and graduate level educational opportunities that deprived them of access to public and private institutions of higher education due to slavery and segregation despite several legislations passed calling for the desegregation of schools. 

From the moment they came into existence, HBCUs have contributed to shaping the trajectory of many African American lives and offering them educational empowerment which has seen them achieve remarkable strides in American society.


Before the abolition of slavery and the 1861 Civil War, anti-illiteracy laws were already in place as a tool by slave owners and those against the abolition of slavery as a tool to prevent all people of color from accessing any form of education. In their thinking, a literate negro was uncontrollable and would greatly impact the American economy.

No structured higher education existed at that time for Blacks and access to public institutions of learning was greatly restricted across several states. In states where Blacks were allowed to attend White-dominated institutions, they still faced discrimination and racism.

In 1837, seeing this growing need to have more Blacks educated, Quaker Philanthropist Richard Humphreys donated $10,000 to establish the “African Institute” for the education of people of African descent. The school later had its name changed to the Institute for Colored Youth. It would later on be known as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania becoming the first Historically Black College and University (HBCU).

Two other Black institutions--Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania (1854), and Wilberforce University, in Ohio (1856) followed in its stead. Today, there are approximately 107 HBCUs in the United States of America.

The library at Cheyney University. Public Domain

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As part of its contribution to the American Society, HBCUs have been in the frontlines of the civil rights movement. Several leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Morehouse College), Jesse Jackson (North Carolina A&T), and Stokely Carmicheal (Howard University), were all products of HBCUs. 

These institutions raised leaders committed to the fight for racial equality and were rallying points for meetings and take-off points for several marches.

Another area where HBCUs have contributed to the advancement of American Society is in the STEM field where the likes of Catherine Johnson (West Virginia State) whose mathematical knowledge was influential in the NASA space program. Her role in the Mercury program (1961) which calculated the flight path for Freedom 7 put the first US Astronaut in space. She would later on compute for the Apollo 11 mission (1969) which took the three Americans to the Moon.

HBCUs have consistently produced remarkable scholars such as Thurgood Marshall (Howard University) Marian Wright Edelman (Spelman College), Vice President Kamala Harris (Howard University), Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State University), Will Packer (Florida A&M University) amongst many others contributing in various fields such as politics, science, technology, medicine, politics, and the arts.

HBCUs have also contributed to preserving the history, culture, and heritage of many African American communities. Many of its campuses offer programs and various activities that educate and inform on the rich history of the African American identity, traditions, literature, art, and music thereby building a deep sense of oneness.

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 Okechukwu Nzeribe works with the Onitsha Chamber of Commerce, in Anambra State, Nigeria, and loves unveiling the richness of African cultures. [email protected]

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