The Price of Progress
It’s 1837, millions of descendants of African people are still considered “⅗ of a man” and the legal property of the highest white bidder. Forbidden from learning anything outside of the manual labor they were compressed to, they would soon hang in the balance of a civil war over the legality of slave labor. This was a fascinating time for The African Institute, (Now Cheyney University) to be established. In February 1837 Cheyney was established to educate people of African descent to be teachers. This is the first Black College (Formerly known as, “Negro Colleges” more commonly know today as, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) ) established in America. So began a legacy of institutions that were created to educate the children of slaves on agricultural and mechanical arts, but would eventually graduate people who would go on to influence every part of American culture from politics to entertainment. Think, Martin Luthern King Jr, Toni Morrison, Spike Lee, Jesse Jackson and Oprah.
Many, but not all of these institutions were founded after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, changing the federal legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans to freedmen. This is a major shift in the trajectory of the African american race. Over the course of 130 years these Historic institutions were erected from Pennsylvania to the southernmost tip of Florida and have seen 3 wars, a racially segregated social system, followed by a civil rights era that would introduce integration in American public education, the demise of several of these institutions.
The 1950s would be defined by civil rights activism, including multiple legal cases including African American students suing the white institutions they wished to attend. These cases were the prerequisite to the landmark United States Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education led by Thurgood Marshall graduate of the Howard University law school in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. While this was definitely a step forward for African Americans and the journey toward racial equality in America, it would be a devastating blow to the grossly underfunded and neglected institutions that served Blacks when black colleges were essentially their only choice. In the 1950s, Florida opened a series of 11 black junior colleges after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. All were abruptly closed after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As it became easier to gain acceptance to predominantly white institutions, enrollment at black colleges plummeted and some struggled financially due to having smaller endowments, less money from alumni contribution and dismal federal investment compared to their white counterparts. This is an issue that has continued to plague HBCUs even today, in several cases black colleges have had to face closure. It is with this is mind that we reflect on the institutions that have served their communities and paved the way for Black education in America. It is our privilege to look back on the history of these pillars of education on which many of us stand. With respect to the work and sacrifice that was necessary to see change, We have gathered the names of Black colleges that have closed along with their active years. This is important to American history year round, but honoring these institutions is especially pertinent during this month that we dedicate to the contributions of the African American race to the world.