They are emerging power brokers in American politics: Stacey Abrams, newly-elected Senator Raphael Warnock, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are also all graduates of historically Black colleges and universities.
The nation’s 107 HBCUs make up just 3% of two and four year colleges, yet they award 17% of all bachelor’s degrees earned by Black student,s according to the American Council on Education.
Reverend Rashad Raymond Moore believes “it is no coincidence that all of these game changers, these great leaders, this new generation of politicians come out of HBCUs.”
For more than 180 years, Black colleges have been more than just a place to earn a degree.
Nicole Barnwell attended Hampton University.
“I wanted to go to school with students who looked like me,” Barnwell said.
Freshman Oumou Kaba chose Clark.
“I’m an activist and I know that Clark is known for leaders of social change,” Kaba said.
In 1837, more than 25 years before the end of slavery, Cheney became the first college committed to educating Black students. At the time, steeped in a fear that Black literacy threatened the institution of slavery, it was against the law in most Southern states for African Americans to even know how to read.
“People wanted to be able to write a pass to go from one plantation to another or to possibly ultimately escape from slavery,” said Heather Williams, University of Pennsylvania professor.
When slavery ended, segregation became the new law of the South. As Black students were turned away from most colleges, they found opportunity in the schools established to educate the newly free.
“It represented a lot of hope,” Dr. Williams said.
Historian Dr. Marybeth Gasman has written about the history, influence and rise of Black colleges.
“You really see them growing at a pretty rapid speed in the 1920s and the 1930s through the 1940s, the interesting thing that you’re seeing during that time is the influence of the Harlem Renaissance,” Dr. Gasman said.
As the fight against racial segregation intensified,“the civil rights movement as we know it started in the church as well as in the HBCU,” Reverend Moore said.
John Lewis began his activism as a student at Fisk University. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a proud graduate of Morehouse College.
And Kamala Harris went to Howard University, where she was classmates with Sonya Lockett. Harris is the first HBCU graduate to be vice president.
“We met bright eyed 17-year-olds coming into Howard University as freshmen,” Lockett said. “She had a very clear sense of purpose.”
Today, HBCUs are amid their latest renaissance, driven in part by America’s reckoning with racial injustice.
“You don’t even have to ask if Black lives matter at a Black college,” Dr. Gasman noted. “It’s fundamental.”
A 2019 Rutgers University study found racial tensions and the political climate under the Trump Administration led to a third of HBCUs seeing a record increase in applications and enrollment.
“It’s not just enough to get more information,” Reverend Moore said. “You have to think about what it means to feed and to educate your soul.”
Correction: This report initially identified a Predominate Black Institution as being an HBCU.