If you’re reading this like... “duh, who doesn’t know what an HBCU is”, you will be surprised to know that not many people truly understand the meaning of an HBCU. In fact, over the years, society has oversimplified the definition of an HBCU to its namesake, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but it is way more than that. To truly understand what an HBCU is, we must go back in time to know why HBCUs were created in the first place.
In 1837, the now-named Cheyney University of Pennsylvania became the first HBCU. Fast forward to today, there are 101 active HBCUs in the country. Regardless of where and when they were founded, they all have one thing in common—they were created to serve as a safe haven for African American students to learn and fellowship. It is no secret that historically White institutions were not welcoming of African American students during the earlier parts of HBCU history. That is why newly freed slaves converged to HBCUs, institutions where they could safely exist and further their education. The early HBCU students were able to bring their unapologetic selves to their institutions, which began setting the foundations of the HBCU traditions we know and love today. HBCU traditions go beyond the amazing marching bands and legendary homecoming celebrations. HBCUs are home to some of the world's most notable thinkers and change agents, such as:
- Ralph David Abernathy – Alabama State University
- Toni Morrison – Howard University
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – Morehouse College
- Katherine Johnson – West Virginia State University
- W. E. B. Du Bois – Fisk University
- Evelynn Hammonds – Spelman College
- Thurgood Marshall – Lincoln University
- Omarosa Manigault – Central State University
- Booker T. Washington – Hampton University
- Bessie Coleman, Langston University
So when someone asks, "what is an HBCU?" You’ll let them know that it is more than just a name. It represents the historical perseverance of safety, education, culture, and development of the African American community.