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Historically Black Colleges and Universities are Remaking American Politics

Kamala D. Harris, a Black woman, is the vice president-elect of the United States. A range of other Black women helped to make this happen: Stacey Abrams, who is responsible in large part for the unprecedented voter turnout in Georgia, and Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta. Also deserving credit is Nikema Williams, who won Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, which included Clayton County and was formerly represented by John Lewis until his passing.

They all have one thing in common: They received their education at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Harris attended Howard, Abrams attended Spelman, Bottoms attended Florida A&M, and Williams attended Talladega. HBCUs are important producers of Black female leaders. Many of these colleges have fostered an institutional climate that makes room for the ideas, voices and leadership of their female students. From their inception in the 19th century, HBCUs have promoted a more inclusive idea of “We the People,” by providing educational opportunity to African Americans, Native Americans and women before it was common to do so. The diversity we see in American politics today is in large part due to these institutions, which nurtured Black leaders, political thinkers and strategists.

The Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, defines an HBCU as “any historically black college or university that was established before 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans, and that is accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency or association.” Today, there are more than 100 HBCUs in the United States, including public and private institutions, two-year and four-year schools, medical schools and law schools. During the era of legal segregation, these institutions provided educational opportunities to Black students excluded from White colleges, but now students from all races attend these schools.

While the first HBCU, now called Cheyney University, was founded in Pennsylvania in 1837, most Black colleges were founded after the Civil War in the South, when literacy became legal for Black Americans. Before and after emancipation, Black men and women pooled their meager resources and established schools because they understood the links between education, freedom and citizenship. They established more than 100 HBCUs, often with the help of Northern religious groups, to train teachers who would staff the Black elementary schools dotting the South.

Just as education was political, given white supremacists’ strategic refusal to provide it to Black people, Black colleges have been sites of political activity for many generations. These institutions were often counted out and ignored by White leaders and White media, but this neglect allowed them to become instrumental in the long Black freedom struggle. In the 1880s, John Mercer Langston opened present-day Virginia State University with an all-Black faculty holding fast to the idea that Black people had the ability to control their own university.

This ethos persisted. Undaunted by nightriders, white supremacists, paternalistic White benefactors and racist state legislators who underfunded Black education, HBCUs kept building, kept opening their doors and kept offering Black students an education that was bold, visionary and responsive to their needs.