The HBCUs (Or what DeVos doesn’t seem to understand)

So Betsy DeVos, our highly lauded (read, incredibly rich yet never having demonstrated any real abilities or experience to fir the role) Secretary of Education, came out last night to speak on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, also known as HBCUs. Her specific statement was that HBCUs were, “real pioneers when it comes to school choice.”

I do take issue with this. Secretary DeVos statement demonstrates at best, a severe lack of understanding of not only the history of HBCUs, but the history of higher education in the US. This is not to mention the obvious refusal to acknowledge the history surrounding one of the bloodiest wars in the history of the US and the general state of affairs surrounding the formation of these institutions as well. At worst, this is overt disregard for the significant role these institutions not only played, but continue to play and a ploy to remove education from the hands of US citizens.

I’ll let you decide which is worse.

So getting back to those apparently pioneer HBCUs. This is not to disregard that they were, indeed, pioneers, but it was out of necessity due to racism from White individuals in seats of power, something which is still painfully obvious to most today unless you elect to hide behind terms like “Black on Black Crime” or other generally touted defenses against admitting we are a racist nation still today.

I mean, come on! We elected a man to the highest seat of power who put a ban on travel for Muslims. Do you really need more proof?

But back to HBCUs. See, to understand the formation of many (but not all) of these institution, you must know the history behind the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 and 1890.

In 1859, Justin Smith Morrill, from Vermont, put forth the Land Grant Act. This Act would provide 30,000 acres of land per congressman to fund education within their state. Prior to this inclusion, attendance at college was expensive and not available to massive swaths of the population. It took three years and several state’s seceding from the Union before, in 1962, the Act passed. This act, which funded agricultural, military, and mechanical (today, that is engineering) education, changed the face of higher education. Suddenly class was not as large a factor and more students could get education. All but two of the institutions which rose from this funding were public.

Still, there were issues. Going back a bit further in the world of higher education, individuals who were recognized as Black were unable to attend institutions of higher education until Oberlin opened it’s doors in the 1830’s. Considering the number of institutions at that point, there being only one where Black students could learn was a bit of an issue. This was in the same world where it was those who did not look down on Black individuals as inferior were the ones who had to hide.

The first HBCU title is claimed by three different institutions in various ways. Cheney State, Wilberforce, and Lincoln all tend to make claims for various reasons, but the fact of the matter is that these institutions only began opening their doors in the 1830’s and were not institutions of higher education until the 1850s. Add in that id was even later before they were staffed or run by folks from the same societal background as their students and you can understand the issues these institutions face.

So with such limited a role for Black students, but a growing collegiate population, we found ourselves in the midst of the 13th and 14th amendments to the US Constitution which ended slavery and made ex-slaves citizens of the United States (this was something denied to them in the shadow of the Dred Scott v Sanford (1857) case). In came the next Morrill Land Grant Act. This one finally passed in 1890. What this required was either that Land-Grant Institutions allow Black students to attend (none did up until this point) or else an equal amount of funding from that granted land be used to fund institutions of education for Black students.

Cornell University, one of only two private Land-Grant Universities (the other being MIT) first admitted Black students in 1890. a mere 16 years later, the first Historically Black Fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, was founded.

Other state, such as nearly every state which fought on the side of the Confederacy, elected to go a different route by opening their new schools to Black students. As such, these schools became primarily attended by Black students.

And we use the term “Historically. As opposed to things such as Predominantly White Institutions, which almost every other Land Grant Institutions fell in back then and still falls in today, not all of these HBCUs serve just or even predominantly Black students today. The range of students attending HBCUs today is more diverse than their often larger public peers.

And then we come to the role which HBCUs play today. They are still pioneers. More so than other state institutions, HBCUs are asked to do more with less. They are ridiculed by society, leading to its own set of challenges.

And here is the part about us being a racist society, we seem to assume that these are one of the issues as opposed to a symptom of our own ignorance.

I have to say, Betsy DeVos, I am disappointed. More so by a society that allows people such as yourselves to decide to ruin everything which truly “Made our nation great”, but the disappointment reigns nonetheless.

So please, to you and everyone else attempting to jump in and make broad, overbearing statements about HBCU, read a little of both past and recent history not only of HBCUs, but of the situation surrounding them before you decide to condemn them or mock them.


About rigsurfer

A Brother of Delta Upsilon International Fraternity, Inc., Joined in Fall 2010. Completed a B.A. in English at North Carolina State University in 2013 and received a M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration at Texas Tech University in 2015. Passionate about Leadership and Diversity as well as Ducks, Scooby Doo, and reading.
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