Educating African Americans: A Brief Look into Historically Black Colleges in America

Michael Arzate is the Summer Diversity Intern in the Research Services Division, Textual Records at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. He is currently a History undergraduate major at the University of California, Berkeley.

As the 50th anniversary of the iconic March on Washington is being celebrated, I’ve come to reflect on major legislation that soon will be celebrating their 50th as well, many of which came from Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965 . My attention today is focused on how the  Higher Education Act forever changed higher education for African Americans. While government support for higher education for African Americans did not stem from the Act, it did create a standard for which future presidential administrations and Congress would provide financial support.

(The Higher Education Act of 1965. National Archives Identifier 299923)

The primary vehicle for which higher education for Black Americans is advocated and supported is through Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). While HBCUs existed well before Johnson’s Higher Education Act (many were established after the Civil War), the Act created a federal definition for which HBCUs were to be accounted for and provided direct federal funding for these schools, support which is still relied on until this day.

Of the 104 HBCU institutions today, about 90% still receive some type of federal aid (Howard University, for example, received $234 million in federal appropriations to cover an $851 budget operating budget for the 2012 fiscal year). With the rising cost of quality education and the pressure to keep tuition and other student expenses low so that the education can become more accessible to low-income students, HBCUs have found themselves reliant on state and federal help in order to survive and provide educational opportunities for African Americans.

At the National Archives we have a plethora of documents including speeches, photographs, and audio recordings regarding federal support for HBCUs, dating back from Herbert Hoover’s visit to Howard University (National Archives Identifier 6337952) to Ronald Reagan’s Executive Order* to significantly increase the participation of HBCUs in federally funded programs (National Archives Identifier 4556129).

Included amongst the records regarding HBCUs is an especially inspiring speech given in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the dedication of a new set of buildings funded by Congress at Howard University, located in Washington D. C. The speech set the tone for the government’s mission to support those same people that it had willfully discriminated against for hundreds of years before. The New Deal author was met with applause as he declared,  “[Howard University] typifies America’s faith in the ability of man to respond to opportunity regardless of race, or creed, or color.” President Roosevelt characterized his domestic agenda when he said, “These [newly dedicated] structures…represent the happy conjuncture of two important federal programs to meet the difficulties of the depression. As far as it is humanly possible, the federal government has followed the policy that among American citizens there should be no forgotten men or race. It is a wise and truly American policy and we shall continue to faithfully observe it.”

(Transcript for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address at Howard University, given on 10/26/1936. National Archives Identifier 197359)

Since higher education is one of the most common medium for upward social mobility, federal programs initiated in order to help African Americans receive an education gained strict attention during the progressive social movement of the 1960s . In order to assimilate a once-repressed group into a highly skilled and educated working and middle class, expanding educational opportunities for these groups became necessary. With the increased priority in the federal government to fund higher education for African Americans and other minorities, those who experienced poverty were finally given the opportunity to escape through affirmative action policies and new federal funds that were being pumped into schools specifically designed for these people.

*Researchers should note that with this file, records must be screened for personal privacy and law enforcement information under 5 U.S.C. 552(b) prior to public release. Some documents remain classified in whole or in part. Access to some case file subjects requires a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the FBI.

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