Biden Has a Unique Opportunity to Undo Years of Education InequalityRoundup
tags: African American history, higher education, HBCU, Historically Black Colleges
Crystal R. Sanders is associate professor of history at Pennsylvania State University and author of the award-winning book A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi's Black Freedom Struggle. She is writing a new book entitled A Forgotten Migration: Black Southerners and Graduate Education During the Era of Legal Segregation.
President Biden has pledged to combat racial inequality and to expand access and lower costs for higher education. These proposed education policies signal a federal commitment to eradicating barriers that hinder people from reaching their highest academic potential. They are also a reminder of the link between racial discrimination and unequal opportunity in education. Public higher education in the United States was legally segregated on the basis of race from Emancipation until the mid- to late 1950s.
Although many states, on paper, had dual systems of higher education, in reality, these states had well-endowed non-Black flagship institutions (many of these schools admitted non-White students) and poorly funded Blacks-only institutions. The inequity was most extreme at the post-baccalaureate level, as public Black graduate and professional school programs were nonexistent until the eve of World War II. This severely limited the production of Black physicians, lawyers and pharmacists, and stymied the creation of a Black middle class.
Before 1936, there were only seven schools, primarily in the South — all private institutions — where African Americans could pursue graduate or professional studies: Howard University, Hampton Institute, Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, Gammon Theological Seminary, Atlanta University and Xavier University. Graduate offerings at these institutions were limited. For example, graduate work at Hampton was possible only in education, and the courses were offered during the summer session only. Most Southern and border states denied African Americans access to public professional school education until the 1950s, forcing them to go out of state for anything beyond a bachelor’s degree.
How did this work? Consider the case of Missouri.
The state had one institution of higher education for African Americans: Lincoln Institute. Located in Jefferson City, Lincoln began as a private institution in 1866 established at the initiative of Black Civil War veterans and became a state normal institution in 1879. And yet, Lincoln was not the Black counterpart to the University of Missouri.
Lincoln did not offer serious study in the liberal arts and had no graduate offerings. Mizzou, as the University of Missouri is often called, had robust undergraduate and graduate programs in a variety of disciplines. This violated the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) in which justices decreed that racial segregation was legal but prohibited discrimination on the basis of race or color. Thus, when a state provided certain educational opportunities for one race of people, it had a legal obligation to provide those same educational opportunities to another race of people.