Jan 1, 1933 - Dec 31, 1941

Black College Life in the New Deal 

U.S. National Archives

A Photo Exhibit Through the Lens of Kenneth Space, Photographer for the  Harmon Foundation
The Great Depression exacerbated the hardships of many African Americans, who already dealt with poverty, segregation, disenfranchisement, and racial violence. In spite of the many social and economic obstacles of the New Deal era, many African American men and women were able to pursue a higher education.
Thousands of African American students enrolled in what is today known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). These fortunate men and women were considered to be part of the "Talented Tenth" - the elite top 10 percent, members of the race who contributed to racial uplift and combated racism, paving the way for equality for the black community.
From 1936-1937, the Harmon Foundation hired photographer Kenneth Space to capture African American life in the South. Throughout his tour, Space stopped at HBCUs and photographed student life, in and out of class.

The result, presented in this exhibit, depicts a unique reality of the black experience in 1930s America - young adults were members of vibrant social organizations, participated in sporting activities, and worked hard studying for classes.

This is in stark contrast to the other reality of black life in the South in the 1930s: one of rural living, poverty, lynchings, and Jim Crow.

Howard University

“Truth and Service”

est. 1867

Washington, DC

Howard University, referred to as “the capstone of Negro education” boasts many notable alumni and employed leading African American academics during the 1930s, including: Lois Mailou Jones, Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, Sterling Brown, and Rayford Logan.

Established in 1881, the Howard University College of Dentistry is the fifth oldest dental school in the United States.
Students also had the opportunity to study in the fields of art, engineering, American History, medicine, philosophy, divinity, law, and other sciences.
On October 26, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Howard to dedicate the newly erected chemistry building. Built with appropriations from the federal government, the chemistry building marked the first time a historically black college or university received more than $1 million (USD) in funds dedicated to a science facility.
"Its founding, many years ago, as an institution for the American Negro was a significant occasion. It typified America's faith in the ability of man to respond to opportunity regardless of race or creed or color.   ...Today, we dedicate this new chemistry building, this temple of science, to industrious and ambitious youth. May they come here, to learn the lessons of science and to carry the benefits of science to their fellow men."  -President Franklin D. Roosevelt, October 26, 1936

The student body often busied themselves with extracirricular activities such as athletic teams and fostering community in social circles. 

Fraternity and sorority life has long been a hallmark of campus life at Howard University. Five of the historical black Greek-letter organization were founded at Howard: Alpha Kappa Alpha (1908), Omega Psi Phi (1911), Delta Sigma Theta (1913), Phi Beta Sigma (1914), and Zeta Phi Beta (1920).

Howard students were also politically active: in 1936 the football team went on strike before a game with Virginia Union because the University did not provide players with food (some players reportedly sustained themselves on a diet of hot dogs).

Virginia Union College

“The Bridge to Intellectual Freedom”

est. 1865

Richmond, Virginia

Born shortly after the capital of the Confederate states was liberated at the conclusion of the Civil War, Virginia Union College was established as a private school to educate newly emancipated freedmen and women.
Students attending Virginia Union in the New Deal era were witness to a steadily growing institution, as the school had recently established schools for education and law, promoted opportunities for missionary work abroad, and expanded their athletics program.
Noteworthy for their dapper style, Virginia Union students in the 1930s also became accomplished alumni:                                                                              Spottswood Robinson III - civil rights attorney and federal judge; Robert Deane Pharr - acclaimed author; Bessye Bearden - journalist, mother of Romare Bearden; Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. - Vice Admiral, United States Navy

Fisk University

“Her sons and daughters are ever on the altar”

est. 1866

Nashville, Tennessee

Students at Fisk University excelled in courses taught by leading black academics of the era. 

Among the professors on campus was James Weldon Johnson, Spence Chair of Creative Literature. Before shaping young minds at Fisk, Johnson was recognized as a poet, author, critic, diplomat, editor, and a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Other notable professors included John Wesley Work, III (who worked with the famed Fisk Jubilee Singers), and Robert E. Park (sociologist). 
In 1930, Fisk University became the first predominantly black institution to gain accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
While attending such a prestigious institution, the student body did find the time to let their hair down. Events like the Easter Dawn Dance, sponsored by Greek organizations on campus, was a popular social occassion.

Atlanta University

“I'll find a way or make one”

est. 1865

Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta University fostered an environment of academic excellence. In 1930, the University began offering graduate level programs in social and natural sciences and liberal arts.

Also during the New Deal, Atlanta University began to foster close ties with Spelman College and Morehouse College to form what would become known as the Atlanta University System.

One of the most influential professors to teach at Atlanta University was W.E.B Du Bois, head of the sociology department. Du Bois was the first African American to earn a Ph. D. from Harvard University, co-founder of the Niagara Movement, and author of the influential work "The Souls of Black Folk".

Founder's Day, a tradition celebrated across many historically black colleges and universities, is a day for students, alumni, faculty, and staff to honor the people that established the institution. The annual program consists of a keynote speaker or speakers, musical performances and ceremonies. Founder’s Day is a time to reiterate the history and legacy of the school, inspire students, encourage alumni to stay active, and discuss the future of the institution.

During the New Deal, Atlanta University celebrated with speakers in the school chapel, drill routines, and a parade.

Tuskegee Institute

“Knowledge, Leadership, Service”

est. 1881

Tuskegee, Alabama

Tuskegee Institute, when founded by Booker T. Washington, was established as a vocational school that focused heavily in agriculture and teacher training. After World War I, the school's curriculum expanded into industrial fields with the establishment of a trade school. 

By the 1930s, students demanded more academic courses in order to receive a well rounded education on par with other American colleges and universities. The purpose was shifting from a job training center to an institution where African Americans could be immersed in an environment of learning.

"He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry."                                               In the New Deal, the Tuskegee Institute was also the home and training ground for the famed Tuskegee Airmen, who first served during World War II.
George Washington Carver was head of the Agriculture Department. In his long tenure at the school, Carver conducted his groundbreaking research in botany, chemistry, and agriculture - notably inventing over 100 products and uses for peanuts and soybeans.

Athletics was an important part of student life.

The Tuskegee Golden Tigers football team was coached by Cleveland “Cleve” Abbott, who lead the team to victory in the Prairie View Bowl in 1936.

The Marching Crimson Pipers have provided halftime entertainment at games for over 100 years. At many HBCUs, the band's halftime show is often more memorable than the final score.

Xavier University

“If God be with us, nothing is to be feared.”

est. 1915

New Orleans, Louisiana

Xavier University is unique as an HBCU as it was founded by Saint Katherine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament - the only historically black Roman Catholic school in the nation.

Dillard University

“Strong through Faith”

est. 1935

New Orleans, Louisiana

Dillard University was opened after the merging of two other schools: Straight College and New Orleans University.

Just as today, black college life in the New Deal was a balancing act. African Americans students had to find harmony in the spaces between work and play, campus and home life, and broader social issues and personal development.

In the 80 years since these photos were taken, enrollment of African Americans in college has increased from a select, affluent, couple of hundreds to a more diverse base of over a million.

The photographs in this exhibit are all from the series Kenneth Space Photographs of the Activities of Southern Black Americans, 1936 - 1937 (National Archives Identifier 559211), located at the National Archives at College Park.

For more information and updates about records at the National Archives relating to black history, please visit the Rediscovering Black History blog (http://rediscovering-black-history.blogs.archives.gov/).

Credits: Story

Curator — Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist, RDTP
Curator — Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Lead Archivist, RDTP
Research Assistants —
Rutha M. Beamon, Archives Specialist, RDSS
Sharon Culley, Archives Specialist, RDSS
Theresa M. Roy, Archives Specialist, RDSS
Say It Loud! The African American Employee Affinity Group —

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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