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How HBCU students and faculty have always led the way for social change

History of HBCUs part 2 in a 2-part series

In part one-of-our-two-part series, HBCU CDAC explored the early history of HBCUs. We completed part 1 at the end of the 19th century when two of the most well-known black leaders of their times were at philosophical odds. In part 2, we pick up where we left off following through to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement and illustrating how the brutal fight for equality was often started and continued by HBCU students and faculty.

The end of the 19th century is rife with differing opinions of the role that blacks should play in American society. Booker T. Washington tried to pacify many Southern whites who were already questioning black education and contested that HBCUs should be vocational schools preparing their students for trade jobs in mostly white-owned businesses. Harvard University-trained sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, disagrees arguing that higher education is the primary path forward for upward mobility and the only way to create equality. In 1905, Du Bois issued a call to a select group of Black men who opposed Washington’s accommodationist stance. 29 men from 14 states gathered along with Du Bois and other black leaders and together they created The Niagara Society drafting a “Declaration of Principles” which committed the group to fighting for political and social equality. “We refuse to allow the impression to remain that the Negro-American assents to inferiority, is submissive under oppression and apologetic before insults.” The Niagara Movement served as the forerunner to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which was founded in 1909. In 1915, Booker T. Washington dies, ending an era as one of the last generations of leaders born into slavery.

At the same time that black Americans are trying to find their place at home, the U.S. enters into WW1 and more than 350,000 African Americans serve in segregated units. They come back after fighting for freedom in Europe only to find that they have no greater liberty in America than they did before the war. In the summer of 1919, race riots break out signifying the beginning of a “New Negro” demanding equal rights and refusing to be treated as second class citizens. A transition also begins to take place at HBCUs which up to this point have primarily had white Presidents. Du Bois gives a speech at Fisk University criticizing the white President who is putting unfair restrictions on the students. Students begin to organize to have the President replaced. After a series of peaceful protests by the students at the school, many are arrested without cause. Remaining students go on strike and the President of the university is forced to resign encouraging the beginning of change at other HBCUs as well.

Major milestones begin to occur in the 30s and 40s when blacks take on more of the senior faculty roles and begin encouraging a vibrant black culture. HBCUs start graduating more teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, judges and begin to create the black middle class. However, as soon as those same graduates leave campus and interact in broader society, they face the same bigotry. So, begins the true fight for civil rights. Led by Charles Hampton Houston who is brought in to transform Howard’s law school, he hires an all-black team of professors. Thurgood Marshall is one of the law school graduates who is on his team. Together Houston and Marshall take a road trip to the South to videotape black school conditions for the NAACP. What they find is appalling. Most schools have no bathrooms, buildings are in horrific condition and black children are forced to walk miles to school as there are no buses provided for them. Houston decides to bring a lawsuit in which he forces the courts to enforce the separate but equal doctrine rather than fighting for integration. He knows that segregation will end regardless if the states cannot prove that the educational systems are equal. Although Houston dies in 1950, there is no turning back from what he started. In 1954, a team of lawyers go to the Supreme Court to argue the case of Brown vs the Topeka board of education. A landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court rules that U.S. state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional. Handed down on May 17, 1954, the Court's unanimous (9–0) decision stated that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal", and therefore violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In the meantime, while schools are beginning to desegregate, businesses are still discriminating against their black customers. In 1960, black students in Greensboro NC organize a series of sit-ins at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. Thousands eventually join the peaceful protest. Eventually, after years of protests and violence perpetrated on blacks, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is enacted and makes discrimination illegal based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and later sexual orientation and gender identity. It also prohibits unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools and public accommodations, and employment discrimination. The act remains one of the most significant legislative achievements in American history. As Victor Hugo famously said, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” Although for most black Americans, that idea should have come at least a century earlier.

So, while the first half of the 20th century was one of tremendous social change, the fight is not over. Whether it’s advocating for diversity and inclusion or supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, HBCUs and their students continue to play a significant role in progressive society.

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