In a statement yesterday celebrating the role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Education Secretary Betsy DeVos failed to acknowledge historical context that gave rise to them: legalized racial discrimination in the Jim Crow south. Though she later admitted the error, the initial omission is still concerning. We believe it is important to highlight both the history and current day impact of HBCUs.
My mother and father both attended an HBCU — Wilberforce University — our nation’s very first college owned and operated by African Americans, and founded by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It provided them with an outstanding education at a time when my father graduated from a segregated high school in North Carolina. I thank God for Wilberforce and all the other HBCUs that continue to lead the way for African American higher education.
HBCUs have played a leading role in educating African Americans throughout our nation’s history. At a time when black people were legally barred from attending college in many states, HBCUs allowed these students to obtain a college degree, access to knowledge and opened up career opportunities otherwise unavailable.
Founding HBCUs wasn’t a simple matter of pioneering school choice, as Secretary DeVos initially suggested. It wasn’t about addressing the “absence of opportunity” in some benign sense of the phrase. Their advent was a direct response to structured inequality and legal discrimination facing black and brown communities. The ripple effects of these policies are still seen today in the extreme academic disparities facing students of color in America.
As the leader of a faith-rooted advocacy organization, it’s also important to recognize that many HBCUs were started by churches and religious denominations. They began as a matter of faith-based social justice and a clear desire to expand opportunity for millions of young people who were legally disenfranchised from access to the American Dream. We celebrate HBCUs and the thousands of other K-12 institutions that are stepping up to ensure all of God’s children have an excellent education.