“The problem of the twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”
– W.E.B. DuBois, Souls of Black Folk, 1903
“Hold that line!”
– A popular football cheer
Four years before the 19th century expired, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson, paving the way for legalized racial segregation in all walks of American life. But race relations already had taken a decided turn for the worse in 1857 when the Court struck a massive blow to anti-slavery forces with the Dred Scott decision. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney asserted that the Declaration of Independence was never intended to include rights for Negroes.
Four years later, the Civil War began and raged until 1865.
Congress had chosen to solve the problem with the “red man” by forcing him into isolation on reservations and now the business was what to do about the Black man, the newly-freed Black man, numbering over 4 million and unbound from his reservations, the Southern plantations. The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862 and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 eliminated slavery, but there was no real hope that “the problem of the color line” would go away any time soon. The Civil War battlefields were quiet, but the fight had changed face, assuming a multitude of ugly disguises including physical and psychological acts of racial intimidation by Whites against Blacks.
However, despite this climate, Black colleges emerged to serve an ample supply of eager students, most of who were illiterate former slaves looking to become mainstream and productive citizens.
“Their interest in education was as though an entire race was trying to go to school,” said Dr. Russell Adams, chairman of the African-American Studies Education has great catch-up speed, and if the newly freed slaves were to make up so much lost ground, learning would propel them to greater levels of assimilation and empowerment. Education had been so staunchly denied Blacks in the Deep South that there were laws (“codes”) against slaves learning to read. So it is not surprising that the region is where most Black colleges are located. Unlike some Northern schools, which had admitted a few Blacks, admission to a White Southern college was not even a remote consideration for Black aspiring students.
Members of religious groups (Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, et.al.) were among many of the early Black college founders. However, some schools initially opened their doors through the financial aid of private individuals, philanthropic groups, or state legislative acts. The Land Grant Act of 1890 required states to fund Black colleges in order to receive federal money for White agricultural and mechanical schools.
“Many of the schools started with no money,” Adams said. “The first wave of colleges was the group that was to create the beginning of the literate Black middle class and become models for the class below.”
Some Black colleges were designated “normal” schools whose specific task was training elementary and secondary school teachers. Most of the early Black colleges focused on basic skills, reading and writing, but some of the schools also emphasized religion, vocational, and agricultural courses. Some schools began in one-room structures, perhaps a very small house or barn, accommodating fewer than ten students, ranging from elementary grades through college. In fact, into the new century, it was not unusual that a Black “college” also had a “high school” component.
Often, homeowners offered space in their homes for classes, with faculty members supported by a philanthropist. Atlanta University opened in 1865, conducting its first classes in an abandoned railroad boxcar. However, W.E.B. DuBois has called the founding of Lincoln University in Missouri the “most romantic beginning for all Black colleges.” The soldiers and officers of the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry are credited with the founding of Lincoln for giving $5,000 toward the school's incorporation. Very few, if any, of the men actually ever attended the school. Their concern was more that Black children get an education. Lincoln’s first class was held on September 14, 1866, in an old, dilapidated schoolhouse with a leaky roof. There were only two students that first day and, of course, it rained and a nearby creek flooded. Though a bit soggy, the pupils survived their first foray into formal education and a flood of students began streaming to the school.
The American Missionary Association refocused its efforts from Africa to helping newly freed slaves by supplying financial aid to start schools in the South. Fisk, in Nashville, was among the schools it helped to found, opening in January 1866 in what had been an Army barracks used to house Black cholera victims. Fisk started with 500 students enrolling in the first week but within three months the school had 3,000 students.
“Fisk was not a classic university,” explained Dr. Reavis Mitchell of the Fisk history department. “Some of the people had no education at all. People were learning to read, learning the alphabet and math, but there were no requirements other than to just show up. They were basic educations, but they moved rapidly. You could go from first to sixth grade in a year and a half to two years.”
Come one. Come all. Come learn.
Humble beginnings, to say the least. Now, there are 103 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) with a combined enrollment of almost 275,000 students in 1999. Black colleges represent only three percent of all U.S. colleges, yet 30 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and 15 percent of all master’s degrees awarded to African Americans are from Black colleges.
Pennsylvania's Cheyney State, founded in 1837, is considered the oldest historically Black college and one of only three such schools in existence prior to the Civil War. Lincoln (Pennsylvania) and Wilberforce (Ohio) Universities are the other two, founded in 1854 and 1856. Wilberforce was the first co-educational college for Blacks.
“Black colleges perpetuate what the heritage is about,” said Paul Collins, a graduate of Livingstone College and a retired professor of sociology at California State University at Hayward, and also a former standout basketball and football coach at Wiley College in Texas. “What you are, or are not, will be enhanced in that situation. Those kinds of relationships are not available at bigger colleges. You can't get involved with anybody like you.”
Collins also offers one explanation of why many Black colleges have often been in dire financial straits: A desire to educate as many Blacks as possible, regardless of the students' ability to pay tuition.
“If you showed any promise as a student, you were not pushed out of school,” Collins said. “Schools went bankrupt because they would give so many kids education for free. But how could you turn a kid away if he wanted an education? Black colleges are about educating people.
“Black colleges are about graduating!”
Industrial progress propelled the United States into the 20th century, but the onset of a new phase in American history brought few promises of real advancement in race relations or the inclusion of Blacks in all facets of the “American experience.” If Blacks were to lead meaningful, productive lives, it would surely happen only within the frameworks of their own communities and schools.
Learning would not be a problem, as Black colleges proved.
The color line? Now that is another story.