Between 1861 and 1900, more than 90 institutions of higher education were founded for Black Americans who could not otherwise attend predominantly white institutions because of segregation laws.
Shaw University Medical DormitorySmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Shaw University medical dormitory, circa 1899.
These schools and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) became repositories of African American history and culture, safeguarding generations of memorabilia and documenting the rich culture of HBCU traditions.
A stereographic postcard of Howard University (late 19th century) by Charles Warren WoodwardSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Stereograph of Howard University in the late 19th century.
For the nearly four million, mostly illiterate and recently freed African Americans, education was a crucial first step, after emancipation, to becoming self-sufficient. Learning to read was not only desirable, it was oftentimes necessary to protect freedoms, find employment, and communicate with separated family members.
Carte-de-visite of a Freedmen's School with students and teachers (ca. 1868) by John D. HeywoodSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
The Freedmen’s Bureau helped support schools like this one in New Bern, North Carolina, to educate newly freed children.
The first schools and colleges for African Americans were created largely through the support of civic and religious organizations, like the Freedmen’s Bureau, the American Missionary Association, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The Clique, Fisk University CampusSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Eight girls in a grassy area at Fisk University.
In 1890, the Second Morrill Act required states to establish or provide land-grants to create separate colleges for Black people if admission to existing institutions was not offered, leading to the expansion of Black colleges and universities throughout Southern states. These institutions became places not only of self-discovery and enlightenment, but places that helped define what it meant to have and pursue “freedom."
Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee University
Booker T. Washington described the establishment of the first schools for Black adults and children as an act of “lifting the veil of ignorance” from recently freed communities who sought to receive the education that had been barred from them during slavery and enter into a new class of paid laborers.
If you can't read, it's going to be hard to realize dreams.
— Booker T. Washington
While HBCUs created indispensable opportunities for many, the origins and visions behind their founding reveals a fraught history. Debates over how these schools should be funded and the nature of education they should provide coincided their establishment, many of which carried forward into the present. W.E.B. DuBois, who was born free in Massachusetts, advocated for African Americans to blaze new trails in the arts and sciences and aim for the same status as white professionals.
Facts about vocational agriculture for schools for Black students in Texas (circa 1900) by Prairie View A&M UniversitySmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Facts about vocational agriculture for schools for Black students in Texas.
In contrast, Booker T. Washington, who was formerly enslaved, was acutely aware of the terror caused by white mob violence in the South. Washington pushed for African Americans to learn trades that were already available to them, mainly in agricultural and mechanical fields, knowing that attempts to reach a higher status would be met with racist violence.
Education as a Means of Maintaining Racial Hierarchy
In the early 1880s, many industrial philanthropists grew concerned with the future of America’s agricultural economy and subsequently became interested in the education of African Americans.
Men taking part in the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension (circa 1900) by Prairie View A&MSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Men taking part in the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension.
“We cannot afford to lose the Negro,” remarked Andrew Carnegie in an effort to persuade his colleagues to help ensure the new generation of cotton growers would remain largely Black - “We have urgent need of all and of more [Black laborers]. Let us therefore turn our efforts to making the best of him.”
We have urgent need of all and of more [Black laborers]. Let us therefore turn our efforts to making the best of him.
— Andrew Carnegie
As a means of preserving the racial hierarchy, the General Education Board (GEB) established by John D. Rockefeller Jr., was primarily interested in funding industrial-vocational programs for African Americans to protect a stable, lowermost class of Black farmers and industrial workers.
Cotton farmers at Prairie View A&M University by Prairie View A&M UniversitySmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Cotton Farmers getting assistance from the extension staff, Prairie View A&M University.
Booker T. Washington was extraordinarily adept at tapping into the mindsets of industrial philanthropists and securing funding for Tuskegee University. Knowing how Carnegie felt about Black labor, Washington promised in his request for a library grant that, “all the work for the building, such as brickmaking, brick masonry, carpentry, blacksmithing, etc., would be done by the students.”
Students making bricks, Tuskegee Institute (circa 1881 - 1920) by UnknownSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Students making bricks at Tuskegee Institute (University), circa 1881–1920.
As a result, many of the Carnegie-honored libraries at HBCUs were built by students from the ground up with the raw materials donated by the steel tycoon’s foundation. The opportunity to construct a campus library helped many students to practice their trade and earn wages to put toward their tuition payments.
Impact of HBCUs
Despite some of the racist intentions behind the creation of industrial-vocational programs in Southern HBCUs and deliberate attempts to control the livelihood of African Americans, students reaped everything they could from their college experience.
Photograph of the Knoxville College glee club (1885 - 1903) by McCrary and BronsonSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Knoxville College glee club, 1885-1903.
Throughout the twentieth century, HBCUs fostered generations of pioneering African American artisans, scholars, and laborers, generating a Black middle class and giving many the skills and connections needed to become leaders in their professional fields.
Mississippi Medical Association by Unknown and 1941Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Annual Meeting of the Mississippi Medical Association, Jackson, Mississippi, 1941.
Today, the HBCU tradition remains steeped in the ideology self-empowerment and community engagement, even decades after formal segregation barring access to historically white institutions were repealed.
Kamala Harris, Howard University (May 13, 2017)Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
The need to tell the story of HBCUs, to enrich and diversify the narrative of American education by including underrepresented perspectives, is an ongoing, collaborative effort. The museum brings nuance and greater visibility to that struggle, as well as the strength of numbers.
HBCU History Culture Access Consortium (HCAC) (2021) by Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and CultureSmithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
While Juneteenth is, in large part, a day to commemorate the suffering of enslaved Africans Americans and recognize that freedom is still incomplete for many, it also is a day to take a closer look at the people and ideologies that shaped our understanding of freedom.
Museum Oral History Specialist Kelly Navies talks about the history of Juneteenth
Explore the museum's collection to discover emancipation era artifacts illuminating connections to history.