Historically black colleges endure despite hardships
Student enrollment seems to be looking up
NASHVILLE – Martin Luther King Jr. Civil rights activist and longtime congressman John Lewis. Writer Langston Hughes. Oprah Winfrey.
Just a few names from the long and prestigious list of leaders and innovators educated at historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
“HBCUs built the black middle class,” says Marybeth Gasman, director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. “Without them, blacks could not be where they are today.”
That legacy continues at about 100 institutions nationwide that were started to serve black communities before desegregation. Today, about two-thirds of all U.S. black engineers, physicians and scientists are graduates of HBCUs.
“HBCUs were, and are, centers of black empowerment,” Gasman says.
The schools have weathered competition from larger universities, and some have bounced back after enrollment declines and financial hardships. Struggles persist, however. Enrollment hovers at about 300,000 students nationwide, but interest has spiked recently at some of the nation’s HBCUs.
Fisk University in Nashville, which counts W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells among its alumni, has endured, thanks to its legacy of high expectations, says Reavis Mitchell, a Fisk history professor.
During segregation, Mitchell says, HBCUs attracted the best black students in the country.
“For years, (HBCUs) had the pick of the very best and brightest,” he says. “At the end of segregation, they had rich histories, and there was a tradition of students coming to prepare for future success.”
More recently, many schools have focused enrollment efforts on diversity and new American students. That focus hasn’t diminished the overall mission of the schools, Gasman says.
“HBCUs are beginning to reach out to non-blacks, including whites but, more importantly, Latinos and Asians, to increase enrollment,” Gasman says.
The mission of working with underserved students, no matter their ethnicity, brings with it its own joys, says Phyllis Freeman, a Fisk associate professor of biology. “Each life I impact, each life I touch, they go back into their communities and its vastness,” she says.
Muhammad Ali, center, walks with students at Fisk University in Nashville on April 23, 1975. FILE PHOTO BY FRANK EMPSON/THE TENNESSEAN