An illustration of a Black student wearing a graduation cap and gown. Behind them is the silhouette of a university building. Text reads: “Celebrating Historically Black Universities.”

Black History Month: Celebrating Historically Black Colleges and Universities

As we observe Black History Month, we want to focus on the importance of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). With insights from prospective graduate student Talyia Griffin and RDEISE steering committee members Dr. Joseph Graves and Dr. Ivory Toldson, let’s learn more about these eminent institutions.

As defined by the Higher Education Act of 1965, HBCUs are institutions for higher education founded prior to 1964 with the specific mission of educating Black students in the US. They were originally established for the purpose of educating the children of formerly enslaved Black people, training them to teach other Black Americans or to become tradesmen. For decades after the founding of the first HBCUs, discriminatory laws, policies, and quotas prevented Black youth from attending most established colleges and universities, especially in the south.

A black and white photograph collage of Oprah Winfrey, Kamala Harris, Martin Luther King Jr., Katherine Johnson and George Alcorn.

Since the late 1800s, when the first HBCUs were founded, HBCUs have contributed greatly towards the success of numerous Black Americans. Notable alumni include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey, and Vice President Kamala Harris. George Alcorn, who invented  the Imaging X-ray Spectrometer, and mathematician Katherine Johnson, who was instrumental in NASA achieving space flight, both graduated from HBCUs.  

Download History-Making Scientists: Katherine Johnson, a free printable coloring page by ColorMePhD.

Today, HBCUs represent 3% of the United States’ higher learning institutions. They are attended by almost 10% of Black American students, yet they yield a quarter of the STEM degrees earned by Black American students. In addition, 9 of the top 10 (and 22 of the top 50) institutions that graduate Black PhD students are HBCUs.

“Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have educated a significant share of African American professionals who have helped lead the country in creating a more equitable society, one that acknowledges that the intelligence, talents, and contributions of all groups must be recognized, nurtured, and drawn upon for the benefit of the nation.”From Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, Chapter VII: Recommendations to the President and Fellows of Harvard College
A historical sepia photo of a large group of smartly dressed Black adults and youth. They stand on the porch of a grand building, the Cheyney Training School for Teachers
The Cheyney Training School for Teachers, 1914. (Source: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)

Talyia Griffin is a recent graduate of Albany State University (ASU), which was founded in 1903 in Albany, Georgia by Joseph Winthrop Holley, the son of formerly enslaved parents. It is one of the 15 largest HBCUs in the United States, and the largest HBCU in the state of Georgia. We talked to Talyia about her experience studying at a historically Black university, and her advice for young people of color aspiring to study at an HBCU.

What went into your decision to attend an HBCU?

I wanted to spend my undergraduate matriculation with a close-knit community of students and a network of experienced professionals who work together to support each other, so an HBCU was the best choice for me. I wanted to be in an environment where I did not feel like a minority, or in which I wouldn’t be exposed to many “-isms”, in order to have my mental wellbeing in mind when earning my degree. I also wanted access to resources that I would need as a Black person, and more specifically, as a Black woman. I needed a community that consistently asserted that I mattered and that I would be supported as an individual, and I only ever found such a warm atmosphere at an HBCU.

On the left is a portrait of Talyia Griffin, a Black woman with an Afro, against a backdrop of buildings in the distance. She is smiling broadly and wearing glasses, a blue graduation gown, a graduation cap with a yellow tassel, and large silver hoop earrings. On the right is a block quote that reads: “I wanted to spend my undergraduate matriculation with a close-knit community of students and a network of experienced professionals who work together to support each other. I only ever found such a warm atmosphere at an HBCU.”

How would you describe your university experience?

Attending an HBCU was academically challenging, yet enjoyable. I was able to critically engage with course material through open discussions, but still had time to invest in my personal interests. Outside of class, I conducted research with faculty, or participated in organization activities. There were numerous clubs ranging from activism, to international culture, to geek culture, to honors societies. I never felt out of place as a student, since there were many subcommunities with which to identify and become involved.

“What’s different about us [HBCUs] is that we do science for the purpose of uplifting the African-American community.”Dr. Joseph Graves, Professor of Biological Sciences at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCAT) and a member of the Racial Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Science Education (RDEISE) faculty steering committee

Since the majority of students come from underrepresented backgrounds, discussing issues surrounding race and financial hardship was less stressful because students would have similar upbringings and could validate each other without confrontation. Overall, the HBCU experience put me in contact with a strong network of culturally similar individuals who were not only brilliant, but fun to be around, in a space that encouraged personal relationships amongst the student population.

A black and white historical photograph of a group of smartly dressed Black students sitting on the stairs to the entrance of a large university building.
Junior preparatory class of Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, circa 1899. (Source: Library of Congress)

In what ways would you say your university experience differs from that of students who attend schools that are not HBCUs?

HBCUs usually have smaller classes, so professors are willing to assist students more closely. It was easier to get in contact with my professor if I needed to. I could drop by their office without an appointment and ask for help on an assignment, and they would go through it again with me to understand where I would be having a misconception.

“[Whereas other institutions select according to the highest qualifications,] we build up and we don’t weed out. We are used to accommodating all kinds of students. The students have a much closer connection to their teachers. A lot of the time, they’re not being taught by graduate students, but are taught by the actual professors who are doing the research, so a lot of the HBCU students end up engaging in research a lot earlier in their careers.”

Dr Ivory Toldson, RDEISE faculty member and previous executive director for the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities under Barack Obama’s administration

Interactions with faculty feel more personal as well. Faculty and students are from similar backgrounds, and they are people that students find easier to relate to. Our professors are actively involved in our lives and careers, so they go out of their way to find opportunities for specific students that they feel would benefit us the most. In addition, professors often become mentors for students, providing guidance and support.

What misconceptions, if any, do you think people hold about HBCUs and HBCU students?

I think people hold the belief that HBCUs are not as rigorous as other universities or that the curriculum is designed to be easier, so the achievements of HBCU students are not as impressive. They think our degrees are decorative, and that we are awarded degrees so that the university can boast a large number of graduates, not because we have demonstrated a fundamental understanding of our fields.

According to research, one element that sets HBCUs apart from predominantly white institutions (PWIs) when it comes to the academic success of their Black students is that students at HBCUs are more likely to feel a sense of belonging. In part, this is because of a higher number of Black faculty members at HBCUs who mentor students of color and expose students to highly educated Black people.

Paraphrased from “Why Historically Black Colleges and Universities are Successful with Graduating Black Baccalaureate Students Who Subsequently Earn Doctorates in STEM (Editors' Commentary)” by Dr. Ivory ToldsonCertain people often treat HBCUs as a “last resort” decision, because they do not see the value in attending an HBCU and think students had no other choices available to them. Although these things are untrue, it can be disheartening to feel as if you have to outperform your peers who attended PWIs in order to disprove these misconceptions.

A historical black and white photograph of a classroom. A lecturer is standing in front of several rows of wooden benches filled with students of color, pointing at a picture that he is holding up. There are blackboards and posters on the classroom walls.
Hampton Institute, circa 1899. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston. (Source: Library of Congress)

What advice do you have for prospective or current HBCU students who would like to pursue a career in STEM?

Just like any university, there are opportunities available to you that can facilitate your personal and career development. There are foundations, internships, and professional institutions that will work with you to make sure that you get to that next step in your journey.

Also, don’t let big name schools and their alumni intimidate you; you may hear that HBCUs take the “lower-performing” students, but these students still go on to be doctors, lawyers, professors, university presidents, and phenomenal educators among other amazing careers, so that is a testament to the greatness of our professors and universities as a whole. Being at an HBCU is just as valuable as any institution that may present itself to you.

Read Talyia Griffin’s full narrative on the LabXchange library

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