By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
In continuance of my Black History Month articles, I have decided to focus on America’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), as universities that were established between the 1800s and the early 1960s exclusively to educate American blacks are called.
I am always amazed by how little most Africans know about America’s historically black colleges and universities. A few months ago, I met a Nigerian whose experience with HBCUs typifies the experiences of most Africans I’ve met regarding HBCUs. He told me the excitement he felt about pursuing his undergraduate education in America evaporated when he got here and discovered that the school he was admitted to had an almost all-black student population.
“Why in the world should I leave the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and come to America to attend another university that is no different from it?” he told me. “I didn’t know there were universities in America that have only black students and lecturers.”
One of my undergraduate professors at Bayero University, Kano, the late Professor Mike Egbon, also once told us that when he applied to Howard University (a historically black university in Washington, DC) to study for his undergraduate degree, he thought he was applying to Harvard University. He said he was shocked when he discovered that Howard looked and felt like the University of Ibadan where he had studied for two years prior to coming to America.
But ignorance of historically black colleges and universities is inexcusable for educated Anglophone West Africans. Many prominent anti-colonial activists and politicians in Anglophone West Africa graduated from America’s black universities. For instance, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president, graduated, in 1930, from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, one of America’s first historically black universities. He singlehandedly influenced Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, to study at Lincoln University. Azikiwe also studied at Howard University before proceeding to the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.
I, too, confess to not being aware of historically black universities in America until my encounter with the late Professor Egbon, who told us about Howard University being an almost all-black university in the heart of America. Although I had read the biographies of Azikiwe and Nkrumah, I had not the slightest clue that Lincoln University, their alma mater, was a black university.
Yet thousands of Africans were and continue to be educated at America’s historically black colleges and universities. We learned recently, for instance, that Stella Odua, Nigeria’s immediate past aviation minister, earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia, a historically black college that ceased to exist in June 2013 after losing accreditation. Diezani K. Alison-Madueke, Nigeria’s current petroleum minister, also graduated from Howard University, a prominent HBCU. The list goes on.
In the spirit of America’s Black History Month, I thought it is appropriate that I bring awareness of the existence of American universities and colleges that were set up exclusively for black Americans, and that have helped educate many Africans and Caribbeans over the years.
The first historically black university, called Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, was founded in 1837, but it didn’t award a degree until several years later. It was Lincoln University, Azikiwe’s alma mater, established in 1854, that awarded the first bachelor’s degree to a person of African descent.
There are currently 106 HBCUs in the United States. Between 1924 and 2013, 14 HBCUs have closed up shop, the latest being St. Paul’s College, the school that awarded Stella Oduah a bachelor’s degree from in 1982.
Important as HBCUs have been to black America, they are currently undergoing serious battles for survival and relevance. Established by white Christian missionaries and philanthropists to help American blacks acquire higher education because they were systematically excluded from mainstream universities and colleges, they have been struggling to justify their existence since 1964 when the US Supreme Court formally struck down formal segregation in (higher) education.
More and more African Americans are choosing to go to predominantly white institutions for a whole host of reasons, and this is affecting enrollment at HBCUs. Many predominantly white institutions now actively recruit black students and offer them generous scholarships. That means many black students have no incentive to attend HBCUs. Plus, there is a barely expressed but nonetheless strong perception here that historically black colleges and universities offer inferior education. This perception affects the employability of graduates of HBCUs. For instance, one study found that top employers who wanted black employees recruited only 13 percent from HBCUs and 87 percent from predominantly white schools.
It should be pointed out that although HBCUs are predominantly black, they don’t exclude white students. In fact, as a recent New York Times article showed, “two historically black colleges are now predominantly white — West Virginia State and Bluefield State, also in West Virginia — and one, St. Philip’s College in San Antonio, is predominantly Hispanic.”
In light of declining enrollments, unending financial crisis, unstated but consequential stigma associated with their degrees, and the absence of the conditions that inspired their establishment in the 1800s, should HBCUs still exist? That’s a debate going on in Black America now.